Autonomy Is Coming, But . . .

There seems to be incredible momentum behind the move toward the development of autonomous vehicles across the board.

In late October, Nissan took a modified Infiniti Q50 sports sedan and loaded it with 12 ultrasonic sensors, 12 cameras, 9 radar sensors, and six laser scanners, a high-definition map, and then, once all of the hardware and software systems were organized, ran a demonstration of the autonomous capabilities that are a result of all that on public streets in Tokyo.

Remarked Takao Asami, Nissan senior vice president in charge of research and advanced engineering, “Our next-generation ProPILOT prototype showcases technology that will be available for real-world use from 2020. Today’s demonstration is another example of our successful work toward creating an autonomous driving future for all.”

Meanwhile, there are autonomous research projects running in Boston and Singapore, in San Francisco and Gothenburg, and elsewhere around the world, projects being performed by OEMs and suppliers. And let’s not lose sight of the academic institutions that are chasing this, as well.

Suppliers like Delphi are spending big money acquiring startups in this space like nuTonomy. OEMs are buying LiDAR companies to supplement their autonomous software companies (GM buys Strobe for Cruise Automation; Ford’s Argo AI buys Princeton Lightwave.) Toyota Research Institute announced that it signed an agreement with GoMentum Station in Concord, California, for the testing of its autonomous technology on the 5,000-acre proving grounds. And this all happened in late October.

So there seems to be incredible momentum behind the move toward the development of autonomous vehicles across the board. Some companies are straightforward about why they are doing this work: for purposes of safety. Volvo, for example. Which probably isn’t all that surprising, but what is surprising is that while doing a bit of research I came upon this statement from Volvo: “At the Volvo Car Corporation, the vision is to design cars that should not crash. In the shorter perspective, the aim is that by 2020 no one should be killed or injured in a Volvo”—and that was in July 2008. They’ve been at it for quite a while and have been forthright about their intentions.

Some automotive companies are undoubtedly doing it more from a simple business case: if the competitors are doing it, then one better be able to offer it, as well. Arguably this is the case with many technologies, going back to 1911, when Charles Kettering and Henry Leland developed the first production electric starter for cars. If your next door neighbor had a car equipped with one, how long do you think it would take before you’d decide that that hand crank was totally intolerable? Wouldn’t that be the case if your neighbor talked about how great it was when they drove to wherever on vacation with the car doing most of the work—to say nothing of the productivity gained while on the way to work?

And we can’t lose sight of the fact that there is the consideration that if Lyft and Uber become increasingly popular, and if they become more efficient by adding autonomous vehicles to their fleets, that the number of overall cars produced is going to likely decline by some percentage as people make the personal calculation that they might get by with one fewer vehicle and still come out ahead financially (AAA says that the average cost of ownership for a vehicle in 2017 was $8,469, so ride-hailing costs might be an overall bargain for the individual). So if that’s the case, you want to make sure that your autonomous vehicles are the preferred choice.

The years between 2020 and 2025 seem to be when autonomy is going to become seemingly ubiquitous. Yet one needs to take into account that according to numbers for 2016 from IHS Markit (ihsmarkit.com), there were some 264-million light vehicles on the road—with an average age of 11.6 years, and it is anticipated that the number of vehicles 16 years and older would grow 30 percent to 81-million in 2021.

What’s more, there is still amazing strength in some vehicles that one doesn’t associate with autonomy at all: light trucks. In Ford’s 2017 third-quarter earnings report, the company points out that “In the U.S. F-Series had its best third quarter sales performance since 2005, with a 14 percent gain compared to last year. Average transaction prices of $45,400 per truck were up $2,800 from a year ago . . .” Which is to say that Ford’s finances are strongly bolstered by its sales of the venerable pickup truck and it would take a whole lot of autonomous Fusions, pizza delivery types and otherwise, to make a dent in the importance of F-Series: through September it sold 658,636 of them. That’s more than all of the passenger cars the Ford brand sold during the same period (428,203) and even more than all of the SUVs sold during the same period (594,755).

Autonomy may be inevitable. But let’s not lose sight of the fact that conventional vehicles are going to play a huge role in the foreseeable future.