The Tokyo Motor Show opened on Friday with a myriad of fantastic, beautiful, and sometimes freaky concept cars. But the subtext beneath the show, and beneath all major international auto shows in recent memory, is the mysterious yet all-but-inevitable future of the passenger car — the autonomous vehicle.
Mysterious because while everyone from GM to Google is feverishly engineering the driverless future, no one really knows when it will come or what it will look like. Such a future seems inevitable because so many are investing so much to make it happen. GM engineers are comparing it to the NASA space program. That may seem a little silly, but viewed through the lens of engineering and public policy challenges, it’s not a bad comparison.
At this year’s Tokyo show, Nissan revealed its plans for a mostly autonomous car that’s consumer-ready by 2020. That would put it well ahead of anyone else tinkering with the technology, with the possible exception of Google. The Nissan IDS is an electric concept car with autonomous driving capability that’s based on Nissan’s electric-drive Leaf. Nissan chief Carlos Ghosn said that while he is confident his company would meet this tough deadline, he wasn’t so sure about the world’s regulators. Under current regulations, such a car would be illegal to operate on almost every road in the world.
The issue of regulation is shaping up to be a defining factor for how individual companies (notice how I didn’t say “car companies”) are developing autonomous-car strategies. There appear to be two emerging basic approaches. The scheme being employed by most car companies is one of incrementalism. The idea is to add autonomous features bit by bit as technology, regulations, and consumer acceptance evolve. Ideally, the timelines of regulatory changes and technology would converge perfectly, or at least closely. Such an approach would also fund the necessary technological innovations incrementally.
The other approach is the bolder one — build it and hope they will come. This is the tack being taken by Google, Nissan, Tesla, and possibly, maybe, some say, Apple. Both strategies have their risks and benefits. Taking the incremental road could buy time to let the regulatory puzzle pieces fall into place, but by playing conservatively a company risks being late to the party. Going all-in may help to establish an early lead, but what good is it to be first-to-market with a technology no one can actually use because it violates safety regulations?
While strategies differ, most everyone agrees the driverless car is coming and it will disrupt the auto industry as we know it. Even GM is planning for a world where car ownership will be a quaint rarity for well-heeled hobbyists and enthusiasts, and urban transportation by car will be a service called up on a mobile device app. The multibillion-dollar question is — how do we get there, who will get there first, and how long will it take?
James Bryant is an industry editor for Dun & Bradstreet. Based in Austin, Texas, he writes about issues affecting the global manufacturing sector. He’s been the company’s specialist on the auto industry for 15 years.
Photo courtesy Tokyo Motor Show.