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Smart cars that can sync with your phone, house and other automobiles are a key step toward fully self-driving vehicles, Dinesh C. Paliwal, chairman, president and CEO of Harman International, told the Detroit Economic Club Thursday at Cobo Center.

The Connecticut-based company was founded as an audio systems provider, but has since expanded to include infotainment systems, over-the-air software updates and other connected-car services. Its 2016 fiscal year net sales totaled $6.9 billion, a 12 percent increase from the prior year, thanks in part to many of its new connected services.

“Connectivity is a necessary platform before you can think about autonomous,” he said.

Despite companies like Ford Motor Co. and others aiming for end-of-the-decade implementation, Paliwal envisions a gradual rollout of driverless cars, saying it will take “a bit” before the mass commercialization of such vehicles.

He foresees situations where robot-driven cars speed about six inches away from each other in dedicated highway lanes, similar to car-pool lanes. And despite a number of automakers, suppliers and technology companies aiming for cars without steering wheels or pedals, Paliwal believes consumers will always want those features.

“It’s all about what you feel comfortable with,” Paliwal said. “I think people may choose to drive on the weekends or to certain destinations. Having the dual capabilities, just like planes do, is perhaps the right thing to do.”

Paliwal argued that vehicle personalization will remain a key factor in the acceptance of self-driving cars. He said automakers and suppliers are working to differentiate their vehicle interiors from others, even as some companies look to implement autonomous technology in mass transit ride-share vehicles.

“You do not want autonomy to be monotony, he said. “User interface will play a very big role.”

mmartinez@detroitnews.com

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