The Era of Autonomous Vehicles May Be Here Sooner than Expected

What does that mean for Detroit's legacy automakers?


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It took little more than a few taps on a smartphone screen for a handful of hungry Ann Arborites to get a taste of the future last autumn. Revolutions often start in small and unexpected places — like Domino’s Farms, the headquarters of the country’s second-largest pizza chain.

After opting into a pilot program Domino’s launched with Ford Motor Co., Ann Arbor customers could order a hot pie using a smartphone app. When it was delivered, they’d get a text message with a passcode. They simply had to go outside, punch the digits into a keypad on a waiting Ford Fusion hybrid, and take their pizza out of an insulated compartment in the back seat.

They didn’t have to worry about a tip, because there was no interaction with the driver. The Ford engineer was hidden from view behind heavily tinted windows — part of an experiment intended to simulate the experience of driverless delivery.

It’s become an automotive mantra: There will be more change coming to the auto industry during the next five years than there’s been over the past half century. One could just as easily argue that the industry hasn’t faced as dramatic a revolution since the day in December 1913 when Henry Ford switched on the first moving assembly line at his Highland Park plant.

Virtually every aspect of the automobile and the automobile business is in the midst of transformation — everything from how you buy your car to how it operates. By 2030, the Boston Consulting Group recently forecast, half of all new vehicles will be “electrified.” And by then, millions of Americans may no longer even bother buying a car. Instead, BCG predicts, they’ll turn to ridesharing services such as Lyft and Uber which, like Domino’s, foresee a driverless future.

Domino's Pizza and Ford launched a pilot program in Ann Arbor to help simulate the experience of driverless delivery. Photograph courtesy of Ford.

The Arsenal of Autonomy

Head out to the Willow Run Airport early in the morning, before the steady stream of cargo and corporate jets start roaring into the sky. If you’re standing on the west side of the field and listen carefully, you just might hear the sounds of the welding torches and rivet guns.

There’s not much left of the old plant that, at one time, helped anchor the Arsenal of Democracy. The sounds you might hear are coming from the construction crews transforming the factory site into the American Center for Mobility.

U-M’s MCity complex will be working closely with a new American Center for Mobility. Photograph courtesy of Mcity.

This past December, the first phase of the more than $100-million ACM project opened. Covering more than 500 acres, the center will become one of the world’s largest facilities dedicated to the development of autonomous and fully driverless vehicles, working closely with a smaller Mcity Test Facility on the University of Michigan’s North Campus. The ACM will be a city unto itself, albeit one where no one actually lives. It will feature everything a vehicle might need to navigate the nation’s roads, with a 2.5-mile highway loop, a curved tunnel, overpasses, and intersections — and all the things that can distract a human driver, from oncoming traffic to pedestrians staring at their smartphones.

Lifesaving Decisions

Travel down a highway at 70 miles an hour and researchers say you’ll need to make 100 or more decisions a minute, most of them subconsciously. In heavy traffic, that number increases exponentially, as you dodge other vehicles, potholes, and road debris, all while figuring where to make your next turn.

Add distractions like smartphones or noisy children in the back seat and it’s no surprise crashes are so common, killing 37,461 Americans in 2016, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Put that another way and it works out to two jumbo jets falling out of the sky every week, according to Mark Rosekind, the highly respected former NHTSA administrator.

“Human drivers are responsible for more than 90 percent of those crashes,” Rosekind notes.

If you’ve purchased a new vehicle over the last several years, you may now have some technologies onboard meant to keep you focused on the road, and even ready to step in if you do get distracted. New systems like lane departure warning and blind spot detection — collectively known as advanced driver assistance systems, or ADAS — are sharply reducing the number of crashes and curbing injuries and reducing deaths, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety reported last August.

Just outfit every car on the road with blind spot detection, says Jessica Cicchino, the IIHS vice president of research, and “about 50,000 police-reported crashes a year could be prevented.”

More broadly, former NHTSA chief Rosekind believes that autonomous and driverless technology could bring us to an era of “zero highway fatalities.”

Perhaps the biggest development for 2018 is the introduction of new, semi-autonomous driving technologies by at least a half-dozen automakers. The big Audi A8, for one, gets AI “Traffic Jam Pilot,” capable of taking virtually complete control in traffic moving at speeds up to about 37 mph. It will steer, accelerate, brake, and even come to a complete stop and then start back up again.

Then there’s Cadillac’s Super Cruise. Debuting on the 2018 CT6 sedan, it works similar miracles at highway speeds. Tap a button on the steering wheel and a green light bar starts to glow. It’s not quite fully hands-free, designed specifically to work on most well-marked, limited-access roadways. But for many commuters, and especially long-distance travelers, you discover quickly how much it eases the stress of driving.

You do have to take manual control exiting or entering the freeway. And the system has a bit of a Big Brother complex. It’s constantly monitoring the person behind the wheel. Turn away for more than a moment, let your eyes close, or start to stare at your smartphone, and that light bar will begin flashing red. Fail to respond and the car will slow to a stop, turn on the flashers and, assuming a medical emergency, use GM’s OnStar system to call for help.

Tesla announced plans to start production of a new semi in 2019 featuring its autopilot system. Photograph courtesy of Tesla.

Test Drives

Expect to see a procession of even more advanced semi-autonomous systems come to market before the end of the decade — when the first fully autonomous vehicles are set to debut, manufacturers including Nissan and Tesla have promised. 

But what does that actually mean? In industry parlance, Level 3 systems will be able to navigate well-marked roads hands-free, though a human operator will need to be sitting behind the wheel ready to take control in an emergency.

Interior of Tesla's 2019 Semi featuring an Autopilot system.

There are already dozens of prototypes operating out at facilities like MCity — and on public roads. Nearly a dozen states have created regulations allowing public testing, including Michigan, Nevada, and California. And the U.S. Congress is working on more uniform national guidelines. 

It’s hard to find a single automaker that isn’t already testing, as are numerous industry suppliers like Delphi and Continental, along with start-ups such as Waymo. That Google spin-off has already clocked millions of miles of real-world testing, most recently adding 600 specially modified Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivans. In fact, some of those vehicles are being used in a pilot ride-sharing program in the Phoenix suburbs. That program has already taken the next step to Level 4 autonomy, taking the driver out of the car entirely.

Driverless vehicles are the ultimate goal for many proponents, none more so than services like Uber. The company’s founder and former CEO, Travis Kalanick, estimated that by taking the driver out of the vehicle, the cost of a ride would drop so sharply it would be cheaper to summon a ride than to own your own vehicle. Xavier Mosquet, the lead author of the recent Boston Consulting Group study, believes car ownership could largely become a thing of the past in many major cities.

Skim in the Game

Uber is betting big on that goal. In November 2017, they announced a non-binding deal with Volvo where the automaker would supply as many as 24,000 XC90 sport-utility vehicles before 2021. They will be used autonomously and, possibly, in driverless mode once that technology is ready. “This new agreement puts us on a path towards mass-produced self-driving vehicles at scale,” says Jeff Miller, Uber’s head of automotive alliances. Adds Volvo Cars CEO Hakan Samuelsson, “The automotive industry is being disrupted by technology and Volvo Cars chooses to be an active part of that disruption.”

Uber isn’t alone. Lyft has its own autonomous research program and is partnering with both General Motors and Ford. GM plans to launch a ridesharing service in San Francisco by 2019.

So, who’s in the lead? The betting changes rapidly, though many experts point to Waymo. The Google spin-off has yet to lay out specific production plans, however, which is why a study released last April by consulting firm Navigant gave the crown to Ford, with General Motors close behind.

Google spinoff Waymo has been “real-world” testing fully self-driving Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivans in the Phoenix suburbs. Photograph courtesy of Waymo.

Ford actually doesn’t expect to be first to market. In late 2016, Raj Nair, now Ford’s “president of the Americas,” said Ford doesn’t trust that humans, stuck behind the wheel for hours at a time, would be able to regain focus and regain control quickly enough to avoid a catastrophe.

So, Ford won’t go into production until 2021, and then only with Level 4 driverless vehicles. However, they will be “geo-fenced,” operating only in specific areas where the roads have been carefully mapped out using high-def 3-D mapping technologies. It could be years before Level 5 vehicles, capable of driving anywhere, anytime, are road-ready.

The passenger side of the transportation industry isn’t alone in facing major disruption, incidentally. On a cool autumn morning in 2016, an 18-wheeler filled with 50,000 cans of Budweiser headed out from an Anheuser-Busch brewery in Fort Collins, Colorado, for a warehouse 120 miles away. The police escort was the tip-off this wasn’t a normal run. It was a test of a driverless truck being developed by Otto, a subsidiary of Uber.

As with ridesharing, there are some “huge inducements” to get the driver out of the truck, says David Cole, chairman emeritus of the Center for Automotive Research, in Ann Arbor. That includes cost and safety. Add a chronic shortage of drivers.

Tesla, with its pioneering Autopilot system, will add numerous semi-autonomous features in its new Semi, announced in November and set to enter prod-uction in 2019. And it’s eventually targeting full driverless functionality. So will traditional truck manufacturers like Freightliner and Volvo Trucks, as well as several start-ups.

Winners and Losers

Not everyone is welcoming the era of autonomous and driverless vehicles. While safety advocates welcome the potential long-term benefits, not all are so sanguine. John Simpson of the California-based nonprofit Consumer Watchdog notes there have been dozens of — so-far minor — incidents involving Waymo, Uber, and other prototypes and fears the public is being used “as human guinea pigs.”

Then there’s the issue of jobs. What happens if ride-sharing services really do cut sharply into vehicle sales? Millions of Americans work in the auto industry and many could be displaced.

Then there are more than 3 million Americans who drive trucks, with millions more operating cabs, ride-sharing vehicles, delivery vans, and limousines. A new study by Goldman Sachs estimates as many as 300,000 driving jobs, mostly in the trucking industry, could be lost every year as driverless technology phases into use.

The auto industry itself will likely see some winners — and plenty of losers, according to another recent study by AlixPartners. The New York-based consultancy noted there are more than 50 major companies working on autonomous technology, but only a “handful” will actually succeed. Indeed, sup-pliers Waymo, Continental, and Delphi are betting that many manufacturers will eventually give up and go outside for turnkey solutions.

“There will be billions and billions of dollars lost in bets that were put in the wrong place,” the con-sultancy’s John Hoffecker told the Automotive Press Association last July.

Perhaps, but for now it’s full speed ahead, and the push is likely only to escalate once Congress passes its new self-driving guidelines.

Of course, the other big question is how will consumers take to this brave new world of self-driving cars. A number of recent studies have found them skeptical about the technology, though proponents expect that mood to shift over time.

That attitude will have to, because ready or not, that pizza delivery car and the UPS van, indeed, the car you’ll be buying in the not-too-distant future, will likely all be very different from the vehicles on the road today.

 

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