Detroit Auto Show and more news


Robocar news continues after CES with announcements from the Detroit Auto Show (and a tiny amount from the TRB meeting.)

Google doesn't talk a lot about their car, so address by Chris Urmson at the Detroit Auto Show generated a lot of press. Notable statements from Chris included:

  • A timeline of 2 to 5 years for deployment of a vehicle
  • Public disclosure that Roush of Michigan acted as contract manufacturer to build the new "buggy" models -- an open secret since May
  • A list of other partners involved in building the car, such as Continental, LG (batteries), Bosch and others.
  • A restatement that Google does not plan to become a car manufacturer, and feels working with Detroit is the best course to make cars
  • A statement that Chris does not believe regulation will be a major barrier to getting the vehicles out, and they work regularly to keep NHTSA informed
  • A few more details about Google's own LIDAR, indicating that units are the size of coffee cups. (You will note the new image of the buggy car does not have a Velodyne on the roof.)
  • More indication that things like driving in snow are not in the pipeline for the first vehicles

Almost all of this has been said before, though the date forecasts are moved back a bit. That doesn't surprise me. As Google-watchers know, Google began by doing extensive, mostly highway based testing of modified hybrid cars, and declared last May that they were uncomfortable with the safety issues of doing a handoff to a human driver, and also that they have been doing a lot more on non-highway driving. This culminated with the unveiling of the small custom built buggy with no steering wheel. The shift in direction (though the Lexus cars are still out there) will expand the work that needs to be done.

Car company announcements out of the Detroit show were minor. The press got all excited when one GM executive said they "would be open to working with Google." While I don't think it was actually an official declaration, Google has said many times they have talked to all major car companies, so there would be no reason for GM to go out to the press to say they want to talk to Google. Much PR over nothing, I suspect.

Ford, on the other hand, actually backtracked and declared "we won't be first" when it comes to this technology. I understand their trepidation. Being first does not mean being the winner in this game. But neither does being 2nd -- there will be a time after which the game is lost.

There were concept vehicles displayed by Johnson Controls (a newcomer) and even a Chinese company which put a fish tank in the rear of the car. You could turn the driver's seat around and watch your fish. Whaa?

In general, car makers were pushing their dates towards 2025. For some, that was a push back from 2020, for others a push forward from 2030, as both of those numbers have been common in predictions. I guess now that it's 2015, 2020 is just to realistic a number to make an uncertain prediction about.

Earlier, Boston Consulting Group released a report suggesting robocars would be a $42B market in 2025 -- the car companies had better get on it. With the global ground transportation market in the range of $7 trillion in my guesstimate, that's a drop in the bucket, but also a huge number.

News from the Transportation Research Board annual meeting has been sparse. The combined conference of the TRB and AUVSI on self-driving cars in the summer has been the go-to conference of late, and other things usually happen at the big meeting. Released research suggested 10% of vehicles could be robocars in 2035 -- a number I don't think is nearly aggressive enough.

There also was tons of press over the agreement between NASA Ames and Nissan's Sunnyvale research lab to collaborate. Again, not a big surprise, since they are next door to one another, and Martin Sierhuis the director of the research lab made his career over at Nasa. (Note of disclosure: I am good friends with Martin, and Singularity U is based at the NASA Research Park.)


Released research suggested 10% of vehicles could be robocars in 2015

Seems a typo?

Does Google really expect to sell their technology to the likes of GM,Ford etc? Why would they support the a fully automated car and risk their traditional sales model? Established companies have a long pattern of resisting disruptive technologies to the very end. I am sure Google knows that, just seems odd that Google thinks these car companies are going to greet them with enthusiasm.

Google has not said precisely what they are doing, but many options are possible. Licencing the tech to a big automaker is just one. Hiring an automaker to contract manufacture is what they are doing now for the prototypes. Also possible are joint ventures, partnerships and whatever else they come up with.

Car companies would be eager to licence it -- if Google will let them. Not the car companies that develop their own tech first, but the other car companies who are late to the party and not in 1st place will be desperate to licence superior technology if they can.

The 4 levels of driverless technology specified by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration are meant to allow for the progressive development of the technology. But the step between level 3 (a driver that can take control if necessary) and level 4 (fully autonomous) creates a situation that could be highly disruptive to the automobile market. Level 3 will help the major manufacturers sell cars (who doesn't want a car that can let you sit back and relax), while level 4 threatens their business model (by allowing electric taxi companies to replace a disproportionately larger number of private cars). It makes economic sense for car companies to draw out the timeline of level 3 for as long as possible and argue against the introduction of level 4.
If some sort of battle does occur, it is possible that big car company lobbyists will be arguing for delays in level 4 due to the "safety concerns" and extensive job losses. On the other side will be arguments for the many new jobs that would be created by greater cost effective transport and some potentially huge environmental benefits (replacing large numbers of fossil fuel vehicles with a smaller number of electric vehicles). A different type of safety argument can also be used in favour of level 4, but it will be unproven until it has extensive real world data. With all this in mind, I wonder if the pessimist introduction timeframes some of the major car companies make are the early signs of this conflict?

As I and many others have written, the levels were a serious error, especially if they are viewed as a roadmap for progressive development. The first vehicle to be released was the Navia (so-called level 4) which shows using them as level is pretty much debunked.

Indeed, one problem with these levels is they do give the car companies a tool to use against competing tech.

As such, I discourage all use of the levels.

I agree Brad the levels are not necessary and not much use as some sort of roadmap. My comment was not really about the levels themselves, I simply used them to cut down on typing longer descriptions of the different phases the technology.
My comment was really about possible future commercial conflicts between the big automobile companies and the threat posed by autonomous taxis services. The main players in this game are all going to be driven by very different motivations and goals. It is going to be interesting watching how it all plays out, especially as the politics has yet to begin. The ongoing battle between Uber and various taxi industries could be a sign of what is ahead but on a much larger scale.
At present the main selling feature of fully autonomous vehicles seems to safety, but I wonder if environmental benefits, especially in countries like China, become even stronger factors. I don't think environmental movements really have autonomous vehicles on their radar yet.

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