DETROIT — “Autonomous” was the buzzword that I kept hearing over and over again during the first day of the 2016 Automotive News World Congress. The conference returned to the Detroit Marriott at the Renaissance Center for it’s 40th anniversary.
Why do we need self-driving cars in the first place? Experts say it’s about preventing crashes that are due to driver error and providing mobility to the disabled and others who can’t drive.
Former Hyundai Motor America CEO John Krafcik joined Google as head of their Self-Driving Car Project. He said the technology giant is testing autonomous vehicles in both California and Texas. They’ve driven over 1.3 million miles with their Google cars.
“Making our roads safer is the goal of the self driving project,” Krafcik explained. “We’re thinking about all sorts of things. Our cars are getting better and better. We started to introduce our cars to snow testing. We can see a ton of ways that we can cooperate tonight. We already have great partners in Michigan. It’s going to take a lot of partners to get the work done. We are going to need a lot of help.”
He continued: “Have we thought of everything? Definitely not. There’s no easy answer. To save lives and provide access and mobility to everyone. Let’s get started. It’s a pretty big team. It’s almost all engineers. Roush helped us build the prototype. Give us an opportunity. We would like to move on from California and Texas–Finding more locations to test. Plus, we would like to form some partnerships this year.”
Toyota North America CEO James E. Lentz was the next speaker. He echoed a lot of the same points that Krafcik made. Lentz said Toyota is also working on a self-driving car. He pointed out that 96 percent of car accidents involve the driver in some way. The Japanese-based automaker announced a $1 billion investment in its Toyota Research Institute.
“A human driver must always be behind the wheel,” Lentz said about self-driving cars. “Building and sustaining societies trust is the goal. It’s going to allow us to make driving more accessible regardless of their ability. We don’t believe we’ll have a highway-ready autonomous car until 2020. We’re both going after the same thing, just a different tactic. We have to move faster. There’s no way we can imagine everything that could happen to that vehicle.”
The Toyota CEO gave us an update on a changing consumer base. “The face of America is becoming more diverse. Women are driving more of the auto business than ever before. The millennial generation accounted for 27 percent of car sales in 2014. Demand for SUVs ad pickups have surged. As an industry were stepping up our game.”
Renault-Nissan President and CEO Carlos Ghosn continued the conversation about autonomous vehicles. He cautioned that automakers need to do it right and not rush to release self-driving cars before adequate testing is completed.
“We think this technology is advancing a lot,” Ghosn explained. “It’s going to take a little bit of time. In most countries, you can’t drive without hands on the wheel and eyes on the road. You need the regulator to allow it. They want to make sure it’s reliable. It’s going to take four or five years to be reliable and mass marketable. It needs to be connected to the connected car. Then, you can video conference, email and do work.”
Automotive News Group Publisher K.C. Crain described Ghosn as “Mr. Electric.” Nissan produces the LEAF, known as the world’s best-selling electric vehicle.
“Today is the center of electrification,” the Renault-Nissan President and CEO said. “We decided from the beginning to go for the mass market. That is how the LEAF was born. I don’t think anybody here is eliminating electrification. All these technologies are going to be part of the future. We have to be ready. We’re all part of the same drive…to make fuel cell a reality.”
Ride sharing services such as Uber and Lyft were also discussed during the conference. Ghosn said he expects more people to give up vehicle ownership in favor of requesting a ride when one is needed.
“Ride sharing without any doubt sharing is going to increase,” he predicted. “It’s an easy bet. I have some doubts on it. This is a time of uncertainty. One thing you used to share is your iPhone. I used to share my personal phone.”
The 2015 Model Year IHS Automotive Loyalty Awards were also presented on Tuesday evening during the World Congress. The winners were:
- Overall Loyalty to Manufacturer: General Motors
- Overall Loyalty to Make: Ford
- Most Improved Loyalty to Make: Tesla
- African American Market Loyalty to Make: Ford
- Asian Market Loyalty to Make: Toyota
- Hispanic Market Loyalty to Make: Toyota
- Highest Conquest Percentage: Jeep
- Most Improved Conquest Percentage: Tesla