Ready for Autonomy

I’ve been thinking a lot about self-driving cars lately. That’s not just because later this month (on October 13 in Dearborn, Michigan; we’re putting on a conference dedicated to the subject.

Rather, it is simply because if you have anything to do with this industry—OEM, supplier, observer—then you absolutely must have engagement with self-driving technology because if you don’t, well . . . the consequences won’t be good.

I think that the future of this technology was indubitably secured on August 16, when Mark Fields, Ford president and CEO, announced, “The next decade will be defined by automation of the automobile, and we see autonomous vehicles as having as significant an impact on society as Ford’s moving assembly line did 100 years ago. We’re dedicated to putting on the road an autonomous vehicle that can improve safety and solve social and environmental challenges for millions of people—not just those who can afford luxury vehicles.”

And Fields said that Ford would have high-volume, fully autonomous SAE level 4-capable vehicles—which means no steering wheel, no gas pedal, no brake pedal—in commercial operation in 2021 in a ride-hailing or ride-sharing service.

The stick is pounded firmly in the ground.

This identification of Ford as a defining event in what will be the history of the autonomous vehicle should in no way be thought of as diminishing the extraordinary work that has been done by other companies in the field.

Google Self-Driving Cars is, I would argue, the company that has almost single-handedly turned the world’s attention to the potential of automotive autonomy. It is all the more remarkable because Google is not a car company and before the introduction of Android Auto really wasn’t even a supplier to the industry. Yet it wasn’t a matter of a bunch of people sitting in a room in Mountain View, California, saying how cool it would be if cars could drive themselves, it was a bunch of people who actually made it happen, with real cars on real streets in the real world.

Yes, Google Self-Driving Cars made it real.

Just as the traditional auto industry has been chasing Tesla in electric vehicles, in many ways the industry has been chasing Google Self-Driving Cars, as well.

Having mentioned Tesla, regardless of whether you think “Autopilot” is a good or bad name or if you think that the well-publicized accidents involving (or allegedly involving) Autopilot are in some ways nefariously heinous, consider this from the Centers for Disease Control: “Every day, 28 people in the United States die in motor vehicle crashes that involve an alcohol-impaired driver. This amounts to one death every 53 minutes.”

Twenty-eight people. Every day. And that’s just counting the deaths related to alcohol, not negligence, equipment failure or other causes. And for those of you with children, here’s a sobering number: according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration: “In 2014, there were 1,717 young drivers 15 to 20 years old who died in motor vehicle crashes, an increase of 1 percent from 1,697 in 2013.”

Let’s not underestimate the dangers involved in driving. While cars are safer than ever, given the numbers of traffic fatalities—and let’s not forget the number of people whose lives are irreversibly damaged as a result of nonfatal accidents—the performance of autonomous tech should be put into the appropriate context.

J.D. Power did a study this past spring that’s telling as regard to who will embrace the technology. According to the 2016 U.S. Tech Choice Study, 56 percent of Gen Y (1977-1994) and 55 percent of Gen Z (1995-2000) say they trust self-driving technology. Boomers (1946-1964) are down at 23 percent and Pre-Boomers (1946 and earlier) are at 18 percent. That is quite a polarity. One might say that the Boomers and their predecessors grew up with cheap gas and songs about cars (“Little Deuce Coupe,” “Mustang Sally,” “Drive My Car” . . . “Deadman’s Curve”), so having a steering wheel at hand is considered to be as natural as dials on telephones. Get over it.

Whether it is for safety, economy (according to the AAA’s 2016 “Your Driving Costs” study, it costs $8,558 annually to own and operate a car) or mobility, it is inevitable that there will be ever-increasing levels of autonomy. It may be sometime before individuals own autonomous vehicles (note that Ford said its cars would be in commercial fleets), but it is coming so we all need to be ready.


Gary Vasilash invented this magazine in 1996 and wrote a column for its predecessor publication starting in 1987. Chances are, if you're reading this, you know him by now, possibly for a long, long time.