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Sunday, 18 September 2016 16:19

Auto Focus: Overhyped? Putting autonomous vehicles in perspective

Written by  Melissa Anderson
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The possibility of unattended driving, courtesy of Google or Apple, seems like a futuristic luxury, something out of a Dick Tracy cartoon in the memories of Baby Boomers. And yet, automakers are citing timelines that put it right around the corner. 

GM’s autonomous Bolt electric vehicles have been seen in on-road testing following its acquisition of Cruise Automation earlier this year. Toyota will introduce autonomous vehicles for highway driving by 2020. Honda is targeting on-ramp to off-ramp automation for the same time frame. Ford says it will be mass-producing fully autonomous vehicles for ride-hailing or ride-sharing by 2021. 

In recent months, the general media as well as the automotive trade press have dedicated a significant amount of coverage to self-driving vehicles. While it’s hard to ignore so much coverage, sometimes the depiction in the media outpaces the state of the market.

It has been surprising to long-time auto industry observers to compare the current buzz about autonomous vehicles with early elements of the technology. A few decades ago, we had some local clients who were interested in the outlook for brake-by-wire and steer-by-wire, i.e. the use of electronics rather than mechanical linkages for these core vehicle functions. Although the by-wire approach was used in aviation, every time we interviewed automaker personnel about its prospects, they expressed interest in the technology but estimated its introduction as being “ten years out.” 

Over the years, we came to understand that this just meant “a long time,” as opposed to a specific number of years, because the deadline just kept rolling away each time we checked on the status. Back then, it was considered a very big deal to place so much reliance on electronics, and there was a lot of discussion about the need for hydraulic back-up systems and how that would reduce the cost savings of switching to electronics.

Fast forward to the present, when the Michigan Senate just approved legislation to allow autonomous driving generally, not just for on-road testing, and to provide liability protection to mechanics, among other measures. Their stated intent with the legislation, which now goes before the Michigan House, is to keep Michigan in the forefront by helping developers of self-driving cars do their work here. 

These are pretty bold moves, given that lives have been lost as the technology is perfected (e.g. the Tesla AutoPilot death in Florida). Based on how hesitant companies were with intermediate steps, it is interesting how quickly advocates have become comfortable with the risks of computerized driving — or perhaps they just have a conviction that the benefits will be worth it. 

Consumers, for their part, are not so sure. A recent study by the University of Michigan found that 46 percent of drivers would prefer a vehicle with no self-driving capabilities, 39 percent would prefer a partially self-driving car, and only 16 percent would choose a fully autonomous vehicle. 

Proponents say the technology will ultimately reduce traffic accidents and increase safety, but the public remains skeptical.

Automotive suppliers seem to be taking the prospect of an autonomous vehicle boom in stride. The July OESA Supplier Barometer survey asked respondents to rate the risk over the next 10-15 years of the impact on their business and the difficulty of mitigating a number of industry trends. Autonomous vehicles ranked low on both counts, comparatively. Suppliers may become more concerned, but for now, the potential impact pales in comparison to other issues such as the limited supply of skilled labor and the strengthening of emission regulations.

The component suppliers’ cool reaction to autonomous vehicles is understandable when you consider a company like Lacks Enterprises, the Grand Rapids-based manufacturer of automotive grilles, exterior trim and wheel covers. Over the course of this family-owned company’s history, it has adapted to a number of changes in industry needs, evolving its offerings from machining to finishing, from zinc die castings to plastics, to its current status as a top competitor in chrome plating. 

For a company in that business, autonomous vehicles are not likely to be a game changer. Presumably, vehicle designers and consumers will still be concerned about aesthetics and weight and the other forces that drive demand for Lacks’ products. 

For some component suppliers, e.g. steering wheel makers, the impact might be more pronounced — assuming the plans become reality on schedule. 

But for most suppliers, autonomous vehicles are less likely to be a disruptive force, regardless of how much hype they get in the media. 

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