Autonomous Acceptance

The potential benefits of autonomous vehicles are too important to be ignored. On the flip side, there are some valid concerns about self-driving cars that have yet to be addressed.

In 1909, Henry Ford made his now-famous comment: “A customer can have a car painted any color he wants as long as it’s black.” It appears he may have never said the even more famous adage attributed to him: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Either way, both apply to today’s approach to autonomous vehicles.

Multiple survey results (see page 6) indicate that people aren’t exactly looking forward to autonomous vehicles. In fact, most people don’t want to own them, ride in them or share the road with them. The collective response from Waymo, Uber, Tesla and traditional automakers seems to be: “Yes they do.”

The situation reminds me of a keynote I heard at last year’s Integrated Electronics Solution Forum, hosted by Mentor just after it was acquired by Siemens. Bob Lutz—a former vice chairman of General Motors who also held senior leadership roles with BMW, Ford and Chrysler—took the stage in Detroit to tell the room full of automotive engineers to enjoy driving while they can because at some point the government is going to take their cars away.

“The public won’t be important in the initial transition to autonomous cars,” Lutz said. “Municipal fleets, delivery, and service vehicles will be first. Gradually, the insurance companies and the feds are going to notice that 99% of the accidents are caused by the 30% of remaining human-driven vehicles. Then the next step is legislation.”

Lutz envisions human-driven cars being put out to pasture, like horses at dude ranches where the public will go to get an idea of how people used to get from point A to point B. “Those of you who like to drive, I would suggest that you do as much as possible of it in the next 10 or 15 years. Enjoy yourself; take a lot of pictures.”

Benefits vs. Drawbacks

In many ways, I think Lutz is right. I wouldn’t hazard a guess at the time frame, but the potential benefits of autonomous vehicles are too important to be ignored. If they live up to the promises, autonomous vehicles will:

  • save lives (and eliminate associated medical costs),
  • reduce fuel consumption (thereby reducing carbon emissions),
  • lower insurance premiums,
  • reduce congestion (which should improve productivity),
  • improve mobility for those who cannot drive,
  • reduce car theft,
  • reduce costs of car ownership (eliminating it for some), and
  • become data collection treasure troves for the companies that will collect, use, package and resell that data.

On the flip side, there are some valid concerns about self-driving cars that have yet to be addressed, namely that autonomous vehicles:

  • can be hacked, allowing someone to take control of the vehicle and/or steal its data,
  • could lead to job loss among those whose jobs revolve around our current transportation norms,
  • could have to make ethical choices, such as deciding between killing or injuring one passenger to save others,
  • create privacy concerns,
  • require a significant investment in roadway infrastructure to work as advertised, and
  • have not proven that they are reliable in all traffic, weather and unexpected road conditions.

Those are some pretty significant drawbacks, but any reasonable look at the speed with which technology innovations are occurring leads to the question of when, not if, those drawbacks will be adequately addressed.

Technology to Build the Technology

Design engineering teams have an ever-expanding toolbox of design and simulation software, testing hardware and software, prototyping and data management products, and ridiculously fast computing solutions. If the promise of autonomous automobiles is to be realized, you’ll need them all and then some. New technologies—from 5G to blockchain to augmented reality and quantum computing—are being tied into the vision for autonomous vehicles, even as the connectivity concept expands to vehicle-to-vehicle communications and smart cities.

And what about the apparent lack of consumer demand for self-driving cars? As Apple (rumored to be working on its own self-driving car technology) cofounder Steve Jobs was quoted in his biography: “Some people say, ‘Give the customers what they want.’ But that’s not my approach. Our job is to figure out what they’re going to want before they do.”

That’s a big job, but I think you have the tools to do it.

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