Autonomous Vehicles Are Coming…But How Will A Nation of Car Lovers React?

This week marked the public opening of “NAIAS,” the North American International Auto Show, which is the grand and proper name for the Detroit manufacturers’ hometown show.  But while Detroit has emphasized investments in autonomous and connected vehicle technologies, including with a splash at CES earlier this month, you’d be forgiven for wondering where all the driverless tech was on the show floor itself.

Sure, there was some. Ford showed a driverless Fusion that was intended to deliver Dominos pizza, and a van that seemed driverless but was piloted by a disguised man in a “seat suit,” used for researching pedestrian reaction to driverless cars. Toyota offered a couple of prototypes with friendly LED sign boards designed to communicate with pedestrians and other cars. Mercedes had a small interactive city model to show off the driverless future, and supplier Aisin showed off the nuts-and-bolts sensors and chipsets necessary to make it all work.

But by and large, driverless tech was most obvious by its absence from the glitzy floor. The main driverless displays were literally in the basement of the show. Tesla, one of the companies responsible for pushing autonomy into the public’s imagination, again wasn’t at the show, the result of an ongoing dispute with the Michigan legislature. Nissan developed a personal assistant (somewhat charmingly) modeled after a koi fish, but didn’t even turn it on in the prototype on the show floor.

If anything, then, Detroit 2018 illustrates—in dramatic fashion—one of the central conundrums of the autonomous future: How does the auto industry get people excited about autonomy? How do you show it off and make people want it, or even clamor for it?

These concerns aren’t unique to Detroit.  In Washington, D.C., too, these same issues about public acceptance and technological maturity—along with cybersecurity—are reportedly prompting some policymakers to take a “go it slow” approach to authorizing additional autonomous testing.  A number of senators, in particular, have put holds over the past few months on legislation that would ease federal restrictions, preempt inconsistent state law, and allow up to 100,000 additional autonomous cars on the road.  One key objection raised by Senator Feinstein is how people will interact with and communicate with driverless cars. This is a question that neither the industry nor the current Administration has been able to answer yet, and given the overall lack of either emphasis or technological consensus on display in Detroit, it’s not clear when that answer will come.  

But if in Washington the debate is about policy, at the Detroit show you get the feeling that it is in some sense existential. The industry has grown up selling not just mobility, but a story of power and control. As with all the Detroit shows, 2018 was full of spokespeople reciting memorized power and torque figures while crowds gathered to inspect each sleek, new model. Dramatic prototypes and concept cars show implausibly huge wheels and ride heights slammed to the ground, suggesting elegance and raw performance. The largest crowds clustered around a 755 horsepower Corvette that can’t be sold in Europe because it doesn’t meet pedestrian safety standards, and an 840 horsepower Dodge that comes with dedicated drag racing wheels in a separate, stand-alone box.

So how do you get people revved up about a car they’ll never drive? Or, perhaps, even own? A car that comes when they call it but in which they may be no more invested emotionally than their Uber or Lyft? A car that is, at bottom, nothing but a more efficient transportation appliance? There may be answers to these questions, but so far you won’t find them at the Detroit auto show.  In Detroit, they’re selling cars the way Americans have always loved them: one quarter mile at a time.

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