Perspectives on the Future of Mobility from SAE World Congress 2016

The difference between driverless and autonomous cars, and the social challenges to get to either.


The discussions rage on, and I’m not talking about any election banter, which is growing tiresome. (I’ll note here that election cycles back home in the U.K. last just a month or so.) I’m talking about the future of mobility, the way you and I get around in the world — a hot topic last month at SAE World Congress.

Along with much of the rest of the automotive engineering community, I was at the Cobo Center where I had plenty of great chats with industry experts and visionaries about big trends in the industry — driverless and autonomous cars (not the same thing!), vehicle-to-vehicle and infrastructure connectivity, and the increasing demands on R&D budgets of carmakers and their Tier1 suppliers. Everyone is chasing the agility in engineering required to get to the front of the line.

For now, the market seems best understood as being full of mostly disparate, a la carte automotive technologies. The game — for carmakers and their suppliers, and for drivers — is to predict how it all will come together and what all the churn and choices mean for our future lifestyle.

Consider driverless and autonomous, two technologies that are frequently used interchangeably though in fact are distinct. Driverless mobility (where the algorithm does all the work while you sit back and read or play Game of War) is further out on horizon, though is inevitable due to two macro trends:

  • hyper-urbanization; 60%+ of the global population will live in city environments by 2030
  • a rapidly aging population; 1.5 billion people will be in the 65-and-older club in the same timeframe

Both large groups of people need mobility. Neither need outright car ownership.

If you’re downtown, say a student at an urban college or a 20- or 30-something creative class hipster in New York, Austin or Portland, a driverless Uber robotaxi might fit your needs very well. Why have a car payment for a depreciating asset that sits in an expensive parking spot for 90% of its useful life? And if you are a senior citizen who has finally turned in the keys, your days of autonomy and independence can be extended by the same mobility-on-demand, driverless model.

There are a host of technological and social challenges to solve, including establishing V2X infrastructure for traffic management and driver-free zones, the latter because it just takes a single human driver to create chaos in a cloud-controlled driverless environment. (This is the IoT variation of one bad apple spoiling the entire barrel.) A future with an emergent fleet of driverless cars, led by big investments of Uber, Google and Lyft, looks to make perfect sense.

However, if you are a suburban person, as I am, with a routine including the daily school run and spring break road trips, then the robotaxi model is less appealing. I certainly am interested in vehicle safety and am more than willing, as are many other consumers, to pay a premium for a car with autonomous co-pilot software that is essentially crash-proof. The Tesla model of beautiful design, advanced driver assist systems and Supercharger stations that make for time-neutral pit stops on that road trip makes perfect sense in that context. The co-pilot reduces driver fatigue over long distances, makes the trip safer and brings technologies into play for driver biometric monitoring. And this is about much more than Tesla. Jaguar-Land Rover are researching sensor technology that scans eyes to detect fatigue, and Caterpillar is exploring similar technology.

Feasibly your wearable, such as an Apple watch, will soon be able to monitor heart rate, blood pressure and other biometrics and co-pilot the car accordingly. A bonus of this tech-utopian future could be the end of road rage as we know it, since the autonomous car will proactively prevent such incidents in the first place.

So autonomous vehicles deliver safety, the ability to comfortably travel long distances and helpful co-pilot technologies that make life better for drivers. This Tesla-type model will likely arrive first, especially given the battery technology investments I discussed in a recent blog, also the ambitious plans to expand the number of Supercharger stations.

In fact there are several use cases on the spectrum from semi-autonomous to fully self-driving. Consider the example of the fleet of platooning trucks that just crossed Europe, covering 2,000 kilometers, driving close together at a constant speed with zero-reaction immediate braking time. The fleet’s vehicle-to-vehicle communications enabled fuel savings and emissions reduction, while taking up less space and improving traffic flow. The logical extension of this is driverless trucks within designated corridors supporting full V2X communication. I see trucks as being the first step towards the driverless future, with their predictable routing and reduced speed.

The question remains — How will all this converge? And how do we fit in as humans to the coming landscape of urban driverless, suburban autonomous and long distance truck corridors? Well, a fantastic presentation by Alex Roy from The Drive at World Congress emphasized the longstanding emotional connection between human and machine when it comes to driving, a link that’s not going away. Consider tailfins and the rest of 1950s car design in America, the 1960s icon Jaguar E-Type in Britain, and the driving experience long championed by BMW, centered on the freedom to travel anywhere on a whim. (Namibia anyone?)

How does all this history play into the automotive technology race? And who decides which technologies will win?

Happily, we decide as the consumer. Any form of technology that excludes the emotional connection to some of our better instincts is going to struggle — a principle that I wish applied in our politics, as well.


garydpdx says:

Andy, certainly you hit on circumstance as being a strong consideration for adoption of technology, in this case the driverless car. Being an urban, downtown resident now, sitting in an automated vehicle and doing other tasks (day planning, e-mail, calls, even webinars!) while the vehicle negotiates city traffic sounds appealing. But right now, I could have a taxi or Uber driver handling such a task; what’s the threshold? On the other hand, as you point out, circumstances living outside of the city would make it hard to imagine … or on holidays, driving along the Oregon Coast or California’s Pacific Coast Highway. 🙂

Geoff Koch says:

Hey Gary, I work at Mentor with Andy. Just noticed your comment and thought I’d reply. Andy touched on this point at least peripherally in something he blogged about over on in April. See: Main idea is threshold is still a ways off but maybe not as far as many think, especially given what’s going on China, success/volume at companies like BYD, etc. Hey, wouldn’t you enjoy the scenery on PCH or the Oregon Coast if your car was driving itself? – Geoff (writer, Mentor G.)

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