Dieter Zetsche, chairman of Daimler AG, sits in a Mercedes-Benz C-220 at the North American International Auto Show at Cobo Center. (Daniel Mears / The Detroit News)
Detroit — Daimler AG chairman Dieter Zetsche says fully autonomous vehicles — even without a steering wheel — could come on the market by 2025 — but still face big challenges.
“The one part is the technical challenge — I would say that is realistic,” Zetsche said at a roundtable discussion on the sidelines of the North American International Auto Show, noting that it has driven a prototype autonomously in Germany for more than 60 miles. “It’s not just a technological challenge — it’s a legal challenge ... even some ethical challenges. ... How does the car decide if it faces a bad decision?”
Daimler is working on all of the major issues that are alongside autonomous vehicles. He noted that airplanes have automatic pilot — but no government requires planes to be flown in that mode. “Our vision is that the driver continues to be in control — but whenever he does something, which puts his life or the life of other parties at risk, the car will step in,” Zetsche said, saying it believes the discretion should remain with the driver. “We hope that the regulator will allow us to go in that path.”
Some forecast that since 90 percent of all motor vehicle deaths are the result of driver error — that one day governments may not allow people to drive.
Daimler’s Mercedes-Benz unit is adding more features in which current cars step in to prevent vehicle crashes. In Germany, people who own Mercedes Benz vehicles with systems that help stop cars to avoid a frontal crash or other crashes get a 5 to 10 percent reduction in insurance rates.
Last month, an auto industry forecasting firm predicted the world will have nearly 54 million self-driving cars by 2035, but predicted a slower introduction of fully automated vehicles.
IHS Automotive said it forecasts total worldwide sales of self-driving cars will rise from nearly 230,000 in 2025 to 11.8 million in 2035. The firm predicts cars that have no driver controls — that are autonomous only — will be on the roads around 2030, but could start on the roads in 2025.
The study also predicts that nearly all vehicles in use are likely to be self-driving cars or self-driving commercial vehicles sometime after 2050.
Over the last two years, autonomous vehicles have sparked the public’s imagination. Search engine giant Google Inc. has logged more than 500,000 miles on its fleet of self-driving research vehicles, while a handful of states have approved laws for testing. Last week Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder signed legislation allowing for testing of self-driving cars, joining Florida, Nevada and California with similar laws. Testing is also taking place in Pennsylvania without any special legislation.
In 2025, self-driving cars will account for 0.2 percent of sales, IHS predicts — a figure that will rise to 9.2 percent in 2035 as cars without driver controls become available.
Autonomous cars could save the U.S. hundreds of billions of dollars in costs of traffic crashes and congestion and boost productivity by allowing people to work in transit. But it could also cost millions of jobs involved in transporting goods and people. If autonomous cars prove reliable, one day governments may not allow human drivers — since driver error accounts for more than 90 percent of the nation’s 32,000 crash deaths and 2.2 million injuries annually
Zetsche said he expects Mercedes-Benz sales to rise in the U.S., but faces some constraints with the move to the new C-Class, which it unveiled here — it’s best selling vehicle worldwide.
Daimler, which holds a small stake in Tesla Motors, has partnered on electric vehicles. “It’s stupid to be arrogant” to think “nobody else knows better than we do. ... This is a two-way street. We are learning. They are learning.” He said the Tesla partnership “makes a lot of sense.” Zetsche declined to say how many EV B-Class vehicles the German automaker would sell. He said Daimler with its Smart EV is the largest EV seller in Germany, third in Europe and fifth overall. “We are with very limited sales numbers already pretty good,” Zetsche said.