During the preceding decade, the speculative frenzy over self-driving vehicles has been evident. Billions have been spent by auto manufacturers, startup arms from tech firms have flourished and I among many others have reported the promise that autonomous operation was imminent.
That imminence proved partly true, since we have plenty of autonomous programs in physical test phase right now. But bold prognosticators who told us we could buy autonomous vehicles by 2020 have been proven wrong.
I’ve noticed lately that manufacturers are talking more about electrification of fleets than self-driving. Consumer appetites for vehicles change, moving in waves from one preference to another. That wave is now moving in the direction of plug-in electric vehicles again.
And I’m not the only one to notice the shift, as evidenced in a recent Automotive News article by Jamie Butters, where it was noted that the change is intentional with Volkswagen.
When it comes to self-driving, Butters reported, VW no longer strives to fill the roadways with autonomous cars, but to less ambitiously deploy automated commercial vehicles for specific uses in limited areas half a decade from now. And yes, a relaxation in the self-driving program will likely lead to an emphasis on electrification.
In fact, Butters summarizes, the mood at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas showed a newly pragmatic realization that Level 3 or Level 4 vehicle availability is not nearly ready. There are many vehicle manufacturers and their suppliers at the CES and trends showing there are likely to materialize.
Level 4 cars do exist, but according to VW CEO Alex Hitzinger, their cost averages over $100,000 each and as much as $300,000. That’s only part of the challenge, as forecast by ZF CEO Wolf-Henning Scheider who doesn’t envision Level 3 viability — where the computer can drive the car but the human has to be ready to take control — as one that can work in the real world. “If the driver is allowed to go to sleep, for instance, it may take 30 to 60 seconds to effectively put the driver back in control of the vehicle. But for the car to drive for half a minute under duress, it essentially must have the capabilities of a Level 4 system that drives without human input,” he said.
The likely short-term winner will be a Super Level 2 system which offers drivers every assist available but does not allow the driver to disengage. No system is currently fool-proof as shown, for example, when a Tesla system allegedly identified the white side of a semi-trailer as a cloud resulting in a fatality as the driver was not engaged. Tesla warned that their system was to be monitored by the driver, but he showed what can happen when it is not. It’s easy to see why manufacturers are cautious of Level 3 and 4.
With ever-shrinking CAFÉ numbers (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) for their fleets, carmakers are under increased pressure to direct funds to developing electric models for consumers, so the current trend is natural.
Another coinciding opinion was offered by Karl Brauer, publisher for Cox automotive, by speculating, “I think the anticipation of autonomous technology has been replaced by the anticipation of more widespread EV adoption.”
While we will witness continued evolution of automation, it’s likely that we’ll consider an electric vehicle well before we consider one without a steering wheel.
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