Self-Driving Cars on the Horizon

As I have said many times, I adore my business but I love cars.  It’s not just the driving experience, the feeling of freedom or the “take your breath away” beauty but also the technology.  We often get so caught up with costs, performance and ratings that we forget the auto industry has been innovating for decades.  Moreover, I’m incredibly excited about the next big thing: autonomous vehicles.  They may be here sooner than you think.

Shifting paradigms, not just gears

Fully autonomous driving (AD) vehicles stand to be the first fundamental paradigm shift in personal transportation since the horseless carriage. The idea of “driving a car” has been largely unchanged since the very first automobiles were invented. The controls have certainly evolved over time, but the basic idea remains the same. AD stands to change all of this. In a true AD environment, even the initial forms, the relationship of car and driver will be unlike anything of the past. The way we interact and use cars will be different. Perhaps a crude, but similar, comparison could be the way the kitchen has evolved over time. It was once a very small room intended only for the function of food preparation, and it was walled off from the rest of the home. Not a great place to spend time. Now today, it has evolved into a huge space with multiple functions, serving as the social center of the home. I think AD will have a similar effect on the way we see cars and interact with them.

The auto industry has never been one to sit still and rest on its achievements, and today is no exception as manufacturers are constantly innovating.  Many of us have witnessed the major changes over the years.

Reliability

Quite simply, cars didn’t always start when you turned the ignition.  Not too many years ago, breakdowns were common: Batteries died, wires shorted and fuel systems flooded.  Over the past 50 years, automobiles have become some of the most reliable machines in existence, and this is due to the efforts of the industry – improving electrical and fuel systems, updating transmissions and making cars more efficient and largely fool-proof.

The driving experience

Power steering, power brakes, cruise control, climate control, plush interiors and entertainment systems have made driving more pleasant for both daily commutes and family vacations.  Just compare the family car of your youth – be it a minivan or a station wagon – and today’s comparable vehicle drives better, is more comfortable and offers a more enjoyable traveling experience.

Safety

Without question, the auto industry’s greatest innovations involve safety.  The list is long: anti-lock brakes, crumple zones, air bags, lane assist and many others.  According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, these innovations have made our roads significantly safer.

Although the U.S. population has been growing steadily since 1975, the rate of crash deaths per 100,000 population has declined by more than half. During the 40 years in which national fatal crash data have been collected, the overall per capita death rate and the per capita death rate for passenger vehicle occupants in 2014 were at all-time lows. More statistics available here: http://www.iihs.org/iihs/topics/t/general-statistics/fatalityfacts/overview-of-fatality-facts

Even with these promising statistics, we still have thousands of accidents per day and more than 30,000 auto fatalities per year in the United States.  The auto industry can’t change the drivers themselves.  The leading causes of driving deaths are human errors, such as speeding and driving while distracted, drunk or fatigued.  Fatal accidents also occur but are far less likely from bad road conditions, weather or mechanical failure – either due to design flaws or improper maintenance.

These statistics alone make a strong case for autonomous vehicles.  Computerized, self-driven cars don’t become mentally fatigued, get intoxicated or become distracted by text messages – and they can be programmed not to speed.  When you add in that autonomous vehicles will more efficiently negotiate traffic, likely lead to lower insurance costs and perhaps eliminate the need for additional vehicles in households, the argument for autonomous vehicles is compelling.

Not all autonomous drive will be created equal

The concept of autonomous driving vehicles is quite broad with multiple levels of execution and sophistication. The initial forms of AD, which some may refer to as “semi-autonomous” drive, have already been on the market for a few years. These technologies are best characterized as driving aides or driving enhancements intended to assist the driver in various scenarios. Infiniti has been a leader in this space with technologies such as distance control assist, lane departure prevention, forward emergency braking, active trace control, and lane keep assist.

Brands with in-depth experience with these technologies are in position to bring true AD technology to the market with reliable, seamless, and cost-effective solutions. We are now seeing initial AD technologies enter the market, and it is my belief that not all AD will be created equally — the execution of this technology will be a brand differentiator. Just having this technology will not be enough – it’s the way it operates that will matter. The definition of “test drive” will therefore evolve too.

 The auto industry has been researching and testing autonomous vehicles for years, and many of the biggest manufacturers have already announced their plans.

  • Ford recently announced that the company plans to offer fully self-driving vehicles by 2021. The vehicles, which will come without steering wheels and pedals, will be targeted to fleets which provide autonomous mobility services. The company expects that it will be several years longer until Ford will sell autonomous vehicles to the public.
  • A top executive at Volkswagen recently said he expects self-driving cars to be on the market by 2019, though it’s important to note that he wasn’t promising those cars would be VWs.
  • General Motors’ head of foresight and trends Richard Holman said at a conference in Detroit that most industry participants now think that self-driving cars will be on the road by 2020 or sooner.
  • At their annual shareholder meeting, BMW CEO Harald Krueger said that BMW will launch a self-driving electric vehicle, the BMW iNext, in 2021.

 

Reliable and seamless self-driving cars – true AD – will not be easy nor should it be rushed

Until true AD, automotive technologies will have narrowly defined focus, having to master a task or a few tasks with simple and clear inputs. True AD will be an effort to codify the driver, taking into account a wide range of inputs and generating an output – a driver action – in a very reliable way. It is one thing to create a vehicle that can drive itself around a track in a very controlled environment. It is an entirely different thing to drive from constantly changing “point As” to “point Bs” in an uncontrolled environment such as a busy downtown, with objects of many different types moving around the car in all directions.

Where will you see them first?  Hail a cab or an Uber

While you might want to have the first autonomous vehicle in your neighborhood, the most likely scenario is that your first self-driving experience will be in a taxi or ride-sharing service like Uber.  Experts believe that businesses will first deploy autonomous cars in regions without adverse weather (like snow) first and then expand to the rest of the country.

Between auto shows and dealer meetings at Audi, Buick, Cadillac, General Motors, Honda, Infiniti and Mazda, I have seen many versions of both autonomous and semi-autonomous vehicles, and I believe the timetables offered by the manufacturers are accurate.  In fact, I was a passenger in an Audi autonomous vehicle test drive in Spain, and though we were on closed track, we went well over 140 miles per hour.  See the video below.

Self-driving cars will be here soon, marking yet another major innovation for the auto industry.


Make it a Great Day!

Mario