Why autonomous vehicles was central theme at AltCar Expo – and why John Krafcik is leaving TrueCar for Google’s self-driving car project

John Krafcik at GoogleAutonomous vehicles was a central theme at AltCar Expo in Santa Monica, Calif., on Friday, during its 10th anniversary conference. USA Today’s Chris Woodyard moderated a panel called “Automated Vehicles, Uber Autonomous Driving Now.” The lunchtime keynote speaker was Tony Seba, a lecturer at Stanford University and author of a book on disruption in clean energy and transportation; Seba was the keynoter last year and was popular and controversial enough to be invited back. One of his revolutionary forecasts is that all new vehicle sales in U.S. will be electrified and autonomous by 2030.

Right after Seba, an impressive group of panelists discussed deploying autonomous vehicles. The Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation’s (LAEDC’s) e4Mobility Alliance organized the panel, “From Research to Reality: Deploying Autonomous Vehicles.” The panel was moderated by Tom Paige of Urban Systems Laboratories and also featured comments from state Senator Ben Allen, who serves on the state’s Transportation and Housing committee, and the Select Committee on Ports and Goods Movement. Speakers included Geoff Wardle, Director of Advanced Mobility Research, Art Center College of Design; Naveen Berry, Technology Demonstration Manager, South Coast Air Quality Management District; Alan Clelland, Sr. VP & General Manager at Iteris Transportation System Division; and Aravind Kaillas, ITS Research Engineer at The Volvo Group, who commented on the commercial truck side of the topic. The e4Mobility Alliance has taken quite a lot of interest in autonomous vehicles this year, including passenger vehicles, cargo transport, neighborhood electric vehicles, and targeted applications (which could be utilized at airports, universities, corporate campuses, living facilities, etc.)

Earlier that week, TrueCar President John Krafcik shocked a few people announcing his new position heading up Google Inc.’s self-driving car project. While TrueCar’s future is in question with founder Scott Painter leaving soon, why would Krafcik choose Google over another automaker? He’d been praised for leading Hyundai to record U.S. sales, and would surely be offered an executive position with an OEM or tier 1 supplier. What’s behind the Google move?

Then there were comments made last week by Daimler CEO Dieter Zetsche to Reuters that Mercedes-Benz is thinking about starting up a business unit that would provide on-demand limousine service without a chauffeur; the company may create an extensive fleet of autonomous vehicles to reach consumers who want on-demand transportation services much more than owning a car. What’s behind this thinking?

Automotive engineers don’t think autonomous vehicles will make it to our roads in any real numbers until the 2030-to-2035 timeframe – according to a study last year by the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE). That’s at least 15 years from now. Here are a few points to consider on why autonomous, driverless cars have become the disruptive technology of the year.

  • Race to Be Leading Auto Tech Company: Google is competing with Apple and Microsoft to be the leading automotive technology partner. While Google has been testing a small fleet of its own self-driving cars in the past year, company executives have stated they don’t want to become an auto manufacturer. That same question has come up for Apple lately as the technology giant tests out autonomous and electrified vehicles. Google, Apple, and Microsoft have been investing heavily in becoming the leading supplier of mobile applications and devices, and software connecting cars to smart phones, telematics, and infotainment features. Google through Android Auto, Apple through CarPlay, and Microsoft with its Windows Embedded Automotive 7, are the latest offerings built around becoming the leading connected car technology systems company.
  • Marriage of Detroit and Silicon Valley: Krafcik will take the helm from Chris Urmson, the former head of the Google self-driving car technology. Krafcik combines engineering and marketing, which is one of the secret formulas behind success in the automotive market. He worked as a mechanical engineer at Ford Motor Co. from 1990 to 2004, where he served as chief engineer for the Expedition and Navigator SUVs. He spent 10 years with Hyundai Motor Co., with five years as the president and CEO of its U.S. division. He led the charge in boosting the automaker’s U.S. sales and market share. Google’s job offer indicates the company wants to be taken seriously by automakers as the leading technology supplier in driverless cars. Other major suppliers like Continental Automotive and Delphi are deeply engaged in testing out driverless car technologies; Google clearly wants to be seen as the leading voice out there in the marriage of Detroit and Silicon Valley.
  • Morphing Automakers: Daimler’s announcement has led to comparison to ubiquitous ridesharing startup Uber – but Daimler has already played a sizable role in the sharing economy. Its carsharing division, Car2Go, is considered by some to be even more substantial than Zipcar in leading the carsharing space. Carsharing is taking off with users and revenues at a fast pace in the past couple of years – just like Uber is seeing dramatic growth in rides. Daimler executives like Zetsche have been talking about the changing role of global automakers in recent years. Daimler, along with BMW, Ford, Toyota, Honda, GM, and Nissan, have been investing heavily in new technologies, research centers in Silicon Valley, and new business models like Car2Go. Some of that has to do with ambitious fuel economy and emissions reductions mandated in the U.S. and Europe, which is a key reason that automakers continue announcing electric vehicle new vehicle launches. There may be something even larger on the horizon. Futurists say that the identity of automakers will change dramatically in the next 15 years – from vehicle manufacturers to mobility companies. Along with environmental concerns, there’s also safety and mobility issues surrounding the “urbanization” trend – where young people are moving into cities and have less interest in owning cars.
  • Leading Advanced Technology OEM: Tesla Motors is emphasizing its leading role in self-driving car technologies through its Autopilot features available as an option with its Model S and upcoming Model X. Tesla’s Autopilot software helps the car maintain its place within a lane and its following distance, as well as manage its acceleration and braking. You can change lanes by switching on the turn indicator and the car will do the rest – moving you automatically to that lane when it’s safe to do so. Autopilot is expected to feature a 360-degree ultrasonic sonar that will monitor everything within a radius to make sure the car stays safely on the road. Every major automaker has connected car features that have been rolling out in recent years – with safety, fuel efficiency, connectivity, and convenience being emphasized. Why would an electric vehicle manufacturer jump into the self-driving car race? The future of the auto industry doesn’t boil down to one leading technology like hybrid or electric powertrains. All of the bases need to be covered for building brand identity and selling more cars. These days, OEMs are racing to be No. 1 in global sales along with being sustainable, efficient, safe, profitable, and the leader in advanced vehicle technologies.
  • “Semi-Autonomous” Vehicles: Autonomous vehicles may never become 100% driverless in the future, and “semi-autonomous” may be more accurate; the main issue being instantaneous highway disasters like a car crash where the driver needs to take over to save lives. Automakers are well on their way to offering the safest and best technologies – some of them being classic like GM rolling out cruise control features in its product lineup. Audi is testing out self-parking car systems, which should be a big hit with car shoppers. “Connected cars” is probably a more accurate search term for where automakers will be investing heavily in finances, intellectual property, and talented staff over the next 10 years – and it could be the same thing as semi-autonomous. The connected car concept is built around tapping into available data to maximize a vehicle’s performance, safety, and convenience. Some experts (including Automotive Digest Publisher Chuck Parker) expect to see limited test applications for connected, semi-autonomous systems in the next few years – such as industrial vehicles or controlled environments like universities or corporate campuses.
  • Why Uber Says it Will Go Driverless: In May 2014, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick made comments about Uber going driverless. It was a day after Google unveiled the prototype for its own driverless vehicle. That would bring down the largest cost of an Uber ride and increase profits dramatically for the company, but that lofty goal is very far away. As for today, Uber spends a lot of money on advertising to bring in more drivers and their cars. Why would Uber emphasize driverless cars? For one thing, Google Ventures is one of the largest investors in Uber (which may go public on the stock market). Perhaps Uber will play a role in Google’s heavy investment in self-driving car technologies? It could be an excellent client for Google to work with, and a technology testing platform with great potential. Kalanick has also made comments about wanting its fleet to be made up of Tesla vehicles with the Autopilot systems in place. Uber has also been participating in the Carnegie Mellon driverless car test program in the past year. The ride-sharing company’s self-driving prototype was spotted in Pittsburgh with “Uber Advanced Technologies Center” appearing on the test car. “This vehicle is part of our early research efforts regarding mapping, safety, and autonomy systems,” a company spokesperson said. Uber’s executives, based in San Francisco, seem to enjoy being part of the Silicon Valley clique with Google and Tesla. The company also hopes to one day not have to pay its drivers; as for now Uber has been enjoying having its name quoted all over the media and being the epicenter of one of the coolest, cutting edge technologies out there. They’d be foolish to ignore the viral buzz around self-driving cars.

Electric vehicles have gone mainstream enough to draw Apple Inc. into the game

Apple CarPlayApple Inc. has enough interest in vehicle technologies and electrification to fund an Apple-branded electric vehicle, according to sources familiar with the matter. Apple has a secret lab to test out a vehicle that looks like a minivan, sources told The Wall Street Journal. According to the article, several hundred employees are now at work on the project.

Like Google Inc.’s move into self-driving cars, the Apple test project likely has more to do with providing advanced connected car technologies in upcoming model years. Apple plunged into the automotive space nearly a year ago, unveiling CarPlay that lets drivers access contacts on their iPhones, make calls, and listen to voice mails without taking their hands off the steering wheel. Google has acknowledged that it’s seeking partnerships with automakers and tier-one suppliers and won’t be entering the business of making cars. Apple will likely do the same, with electric vehicles offering an excellent opportunity to serve a wide range of vehicle technologies. The Apple rumor is stirring up a lot of buzz in tech journals, with speculation that Apple is getting ready to take on Tesla Motors.

Chrysler has been on the sidelines with electric vehicles for several years, running a few test models in Michigan but not going much further. That is going to change, according to Al Gardner, president and CEO of the Chrysler brand within the recently named FCA. Chrysler’s new family of minivans will include a plug-in hybrid version, Gardner said. That will be part of an unveiling at next year’s Detroit Auto Show. The new minivan is another vehicle that FCA hopes can change the perception of Chrysler through the offering of sophisticated technology.

Mitsubishi will be adding to its plug-in lineup with a concept car unveiled at the Chicago Auto Show. The automaker showed off its Grand Cruiser-Plug-in Hybrid Vehicle (GC-PHEV), built on an Outlander-style SUV. It will offer a wide range of digital technologies include an “augmented reality” windshield and an all-wheel drive system. Its electric motor uses a 12 kWh lithium-ion battery. The electric drive system shares many of its components with Mitsubishi’s battery-electric vehicle, formerly known as the i-MiEV.

General Motors gained most of the media attention at the Detroit Auto Show unveiling its refreshed Chevrolet Volt – and also through surprising everyone with the announcement of its all-electric Chevrolet Bolt hatchback. Last week, GM confirmed that it will invest about $200 million in two suburban Detroit plants to build the Bolt. GM said it will spend $160 million on new tooling and equipment at its Orion assembly plant, and another $40 million for new dies at its Pontiac Metal Center plant.

The automaker had been taking a fairly conservative approach in production volumes and marketing spend on its Volt and Cadillac ELR plug-in hybrids and Chevrolet Spark battery electric car. There’s hope the Bolt might take off with its 200 mile range on a single charge and costing about $30,000 after tax credits. That could give GM a competitive advantage in going after the buyer segment Nissan is reaching with its Leaf and that Tesla Motors will be going after when it releases its more affordable Model 3 electric car in 2017. “We are putting the Bolt EV concept on the fast track to production, because reaction to the concept was overwhelmingly positive,” Alan Batey, president of GM North America, said in a written statement. “It has the potential to quickly shake up the status quo for electric vehicles. It’s an EV aimed at everyday drivers.”

“Hands off the Steering Wheel” white paper on driverless cars coming out this week

driverless cars, autonomous vehiclesDriverless cars – also known as self-driving cars and autonomous vehicles – have recently become a heated topic in the US. In the wake of Google’s launch of a test project featuring its own self-driving pods, debate has gone viral on the internet. There’s fear of privacy being violated, hackers taking over control of the car, and loss of personal freedom behind the wheel. On the other side, there’s been much enthusiasm for the technology solving huge problems coming from car crashes and worsening traffic congestion and gridlock. A new white paper on the subject, “Hands off the Steering Wheel –The state of autonomous vehicle government policies, testing projects – and when these vehicles will likely make it to roads,” explores these polarizing issues and what to expect in coming years.

The white paper was written by Jon LeSage, editor and publisher of Green Auto Market, and media consultant at LeSage Consulting. Since Google’s announcement in May of this year, there’s been a wave of debate and analysis over this ground-breaking technology and when it’s likely to show up in large numbers on our roads. Beyond Google, Nissan and other car and truck makers are making bold statements about it, and studies have been released this summer sharing perspectives from consumers and transportation and technology experts. Highlights of this white paper include details on states that have adopted autonomous vehicle testing programs and policies, along with where it stands in the US government and other nations; and the role Google has played in self-driving cars being tested in states, and the company potentially entering the automotive business with its own car. General Motors has played a key role in the history of autonomous vehicles dating back to its 1956 short movie, “Key to the Future.” Technology suppliers like Cisco and Continental are also playing an important role in developing these autonomous vehicle systems.

“Hands off the Steering Wheel” also presents the latest in academic, engineering, and policy studies on the subject matter from organizations including IEEE, SAE, and Navigant Research. Public opinion trends are explored that will likely influence autonomous vehicle resistance and support in the near future.

The topic of self-driving, autonomous vehicles has lately been stirring more passionate comments on social media, blogs, and editorial think pieces than anything else seen for years in the automotive and transportation space. The white paper will be released on Thursday of this week, and an announcement will go out to Green Auto Market readers.

Will driverless cars, Google, DMV, and highway patrol officers control our mobility?

Google driverless carsDriverless, autonomous vehicles have been gaining a lot of attention recently – whether that be through Google claiming it will build its own prototype autonomous vehicles before existing automakers reach that milestone; or Daimler AG announcing it will roll out a commercial truck by 2025 that will be able to steer, brake and accelerate without a human driver behind the wheel. Then there’s Cruise Automation, a startup company that says it will roll out a $10,000 aftermarket driverless device that so far is only suited to operate on Audi A4 or S4 vehicles.

So what gives? Can we expect to see lots of driverless, autonomous vehicles on our roads within the next 10 years?

As far as state legislatures are concerned, four of them have already passed bills allowing autonomous vehicles to eventually make it to their roads – Nevada, California, Florida, and Michigan, plus the District of Columbia. It’s under consideration in 11 states – Hawaii, Washington, South Dakota, Minnesota, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Maryland, South Carolina, Georgia, and Louisiana. And it’s failed in seven states – New Hampshire, Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado, Arizona, Wisconsin, and Oregon.

It was fascinating to see Google initially test its driverless car technology on a converted Toyota Prius hybrid. Nissan rolled out its driverless test model in a Leaf electric car. AutoTrader.com analyst Michelle Krebs thinks that driverless cars long-term will be like hybrids and electric vehicles (EVs) – they won’t take over completely but will play a role in how automakers and government officials are looking at the future of transportation. “There are certain places this approach makes sense, such as heavy commuting cities where autonomous cars could run essentially like train cars without a track — mass transit. That makes brilliant sense. Or these cars could be programmed to handle most responsibilities on long, boring drives, including commutes. In those ways, they will extend the mobility of aging baby boomers, which is where the biggest market is, if you believe that Millennials really don’t want to drive,” Krebs told Forbes.

For those autonomous vehicles that do sell in the future, Krebs thinks they won’t be driverless only. They’ll be “cars you have the choice to drive or not drive. There are so many legal and insurance and regulatory issues, and none of them are being resolved.”

There are some big questions that need to be answered in the next decade for autonomous, driverless vehicles to take off:

  • If there’s a collision involving a driverless car, who will be liable? The car owner? The automaker? The state government? The insurance company? Will liability be doled out and shared by all the above?
  • Then there’s the American civil liberty tradition. Will “big brother” be breathing down our necks? How much personal privacy will citizens have in the future?

I estimate that driverless, autonomous passenger and commercial vehicles will make up a large share of sales in the next 25 years – up to 25% of new vehicles sold in the US. Here are a few market forces that could shape that trend:

  • Traffic congestion is getting worse all the time – as the “urbanization” trend goes strong and more Americans work in, and live in, cities. While mass transit and bicycling are gaining a lot of support, in the end, new vehicle sales will likely stay strong for years to come and traffic congestion will be getting worse. Driverless, autonomous vehicles seem to have the best shot at dealing with the gridlock problem. That will require an interdependent relationship between state highway officials, DMVs, highway patrols and city police departments, automakers, and technology suppliers like Google.
  • Commercial truck makers are exploring the option. Along with Daimler, Volvo Trucks has been testing out autonomous solutions. Volvo has participated in the Safe Road Trains for the Environment (SARTRE) a European Commission-funded project. It’s a tested concept where several vehicles are electronically linked together in a “road train,” with only the lead driver in active control – many times a Volvo truck driver. Big rigs could play a critical role, as they do take up a lot of space on highways and have a major impact on safety and the flow of traffic.
  • Cars are already going in that direction. You’ve probably noticed that with every new model year, automakers brag about offering the coolest, advanced technologies with the latest in connectivity, safety, fuel efficiency, and convenience. After recently test driving a driverless car, Rep. Larry Bucshon (R—Ind.) said it was “the next generation of cruise control.” EVs are typically considered to be part of the cool technology trend – especially the Tesla Model S. For some people, driverless cars will probably be a logical extension of where all of the technology seems to be inevitably headed.
  • The perks will be getting better all the time. If you ever own a driverless car, there will be several benefits gained. For one, the former-driver-now passenger could do something else besides drive the car – play video games, watch a “Breaking Bad” episode, finish up some work, read a mystery novel, or talk to their significant other over a two-way TV screen. Car commuters will become more like train passengers, feeling more relaxed and replenished when they come home. There’s also the likelihood that riding in a vehicle will become safer as more and more of them become automated and driverless. Then there’s improved fuel economy, as these automated vehicles will probably drive routes and speeds based on efficiency. Best of all, gridlock will probably recede as driverless systems place vehicles at peak performance in speeds driven, braking, lane changes, fluctuations tied to weather conditions, and other factors eliminating human error. Cars will be interconnected and can communicate with each other, making traffic smoother and safer.