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Autonomous Pipe Dream, or Autonomous Dead End?

As the future unfolds, next-generation mobility will only improve our lives

By Sandy K. Baruah

The self-driving car. It’s the hot topic across the globe in the automotive and technology industries – as well as cocktail parties. The number of opinions (and events) on the issue of autonomous vehicles are as long and varied as the Porsche options list. One can understand why. We’ve been promised the selfdriving car since the dawn of the jet age. (We are also promised the flying car, but that’s another story.) Today, that dream of being able to take a nap, check email (legally) or watch a movie on the way to work is apparently on the immediate horizon. Or is it?

Some experts are confident that the technology is coming to a driveway near you soon. Ultimate petrol-head Jeremy Clarkson of The Grand Tour believes that the autonomous car will not arrive until we are all passed from the earth.

Of all the big picture policy issues the Detroit Regional Chamber is focused on, the advent of the autonomous vehicle is what our team spends the most time on. And while not as expert on this topic as many, I do have thoughts on how the autonomous era will unfold.

Proliferation of Semi-Autonomous Features in Your Explorer

Just about every vehicle sold today has some form of semiautonomous feature, either standard or available. As more drivers get used to features such as adaptive cruise control, autonomous emergency braking, road sign recognition, etc., they will become seduced into the world of autonomous vehicles. While these features are on more vehicles every day, many drivers don’t know how to use them or turn them off. Not surprising considering many drivers find pairing their phones via Bluetooth a challenge.

But this dynamic will change. As drivers see the benefi ts of these features – and lives are saved – the adoption rate will increase and the demand for more features will occur. As an example, those who have driven the Cadillac CT6 with its semi-autonomous “Super Cruise” feature rave about how it transformed their freeway drives. Super Cruise allows hands- and feet-free driving on major interstates if you keep your attention on the road (a camera is monitoring you). Super Cruise drivers report jumping on I-75 at Big Beaver and not touching the steering wheel or pedals until reaching the Grayling exit.

We won’t be faced with a stark decision one day of choosing “autonomous” or “driver-operated” vehicles. Autonomy will creep into our lives until the day arrives that we can’t imagine life without it.

Rollout of Autonomous Vehicles on Public Roads

Autonomous vehicle skeptics claim massive confusion will occur when self-driving cars share the environment with driver-operated cars. Critics claim that autonomous vehicles will be too cautious in today’s cut-throat driving environment. Some claim that autonomous vehicles will be “bullied” by driver-operated cars (e.g. not yielding to autonomous vehicles at four-way stops). These critics misunderstand several things about how autonomy will unfold. The first waves of vehicles with some form of autonomy will look just like another new car. Just like today’s CT6 with Super Cruise looks just like the base CT6 that picked you up at LaGuardia last week. These first autonomous vehicles will not be autonomous-only. While they will have self-driving features, the driver will still be able to take control, and in fact, will be required to in certain circumstances. Finally, environments in which autonomous features can be used will be limited at first.

We Will Not Be Driving the Generic Pod From ‘Total Recall’

Many, including the great Bob Lutz, believe that the totally autonomous vehicle (Level 5) will result in all of us being shuttled around in generic shared pods with the styling of a Jell-O mold. I disagree. While urban transport will be transformed by the advent of autonomous taxis, style will still matter. There is not an element of our society that is not strongly influenced by style, comfort, and prestige. The future will be no different.

While we may spend more time in a generic pod-taxi getting across town, we will still want (or need) a personal mobility conveyance. Unless human nature changes more significantly than I expect, we will still use our vehicles to store everything from sunglasses, golf clubs and Christmas gifts. I am not sure our pack-rat nature will go away with the advent of autonomy. Just as importantly, while we are all fine with one of our errant french fries between our seat, we certainly don’t want somebody else’s. And if we are still going to have a vehicle, we are going to care about what it looks likes, the interior, and the badge on the front.

Many fellow car enthusiasts fear the autonomous future. I do not. As this future unfolds, our roads will become more efficient and the potential exists to save up to 40,000 lives annually in America. Just as importantly, it will allow me to have that extra glass of wine at dinner.

Sandy K. Baruah is the president and CEO of the Detroit Regional Chamber.