Self-driving car technology moves to forefront at NAIAS

Lauren Abdel-Razzaq
The Detroit News

Once relegated to convention center basements, test tracks and tech shows, self-driving cars and the technology behind them are center stage at the North American International Auto Show.

Wholly autonomous vehicles for mainstream drivers may be years off, but parts of the self-driving experience are on display now at Detroit's Cobo Center: three-dimensional cameras, lane-correction devices and other tools that increasingly remove the driver from the tasks of steering, braking and accelerating. There's even a self-driving concept car with a sort of built-in lounge: The Mercedes-Benz F 015 concept has walnut flooring and seats that swivel to facilitate conversation.

It's a sign automakers believe consumers are becoming increasingly interested and prepared for these kinds of innovations.

"We don't think you can introduce sort of the 'Jetsons' era right away," said Brad Stertz, a spokesman for Audi, which debuted a self-piloting A7 sportback last week at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. "By building it step by step, you build people's confidence."

The goal is to reduce human error in driving, which some studies blame for as much as 93 percent of accidents.

Cadillac took a huge step toward that when General Motors Co. announced it would offer Super Cruise in its 2016 Cadillac sedan. The system will allow the car to automatically keep in its lane, brake and accelerate. The Detroit-based automaker also said some of its 2017 models will have vehicle-to-vehicle communication to share information on speed and location.

In an interview Tuesday, the show's second press preview day, Cadillac President Johan de Nysschen said the automaker has the capability to put a self-driving car on the road today. But it's limited in what it can do right now, he said, because of unresolved ethical and legal issues.

"Once we know what we legally can and cannot do, and the liability issues have been resolved, then we can decide how to turn all the capability on," he said.

With its concept car shown in Detroit, Mercedes-Benz took a far-off look at the future. Fully autonomous vehicles will be in showrooms between 2020 and 2030, said Daimler Chairman Dieter Zetsche.

"This is soon," Zetsche said. People must be assured that autonomous cars are at least as safe as human drivers, but "it sounds easier than it is," he said.

Also at the show this week, Chairman of the Board of Managers Rupert Stadler said Audi plans to invest the majority of $30 billion in the next five years into self-piloted driving and connected-car technology. Last week, the automaker invited reporters to travel in the self-driving Audi for the 500 miles between Palo Alto, California, and Las Vegas.

Chris Urmson, who oversees autonomous vehicle research for Google, often regarded as the pioneer and leader in self-piloted vehicle technology, will speak Thursday to industry executives and insiders at the Automotive World Congress in Detroit. The forum is always the same week as the auto show media previews.

Even the U.S. Army is on board. Its display at Cobo includes two vehicles capable of driving themselves: an electric transport shuttle called the Aribo, which could be used on military bases; and a tactical vehicle outfitted with a kit that allows it to self-pilot while moving supplies, thereby reducing the risk to soldiers.

"We should be keeping pace with the commercial automotive industry in the safety features we are putting in our vehicles," said Ed Schoenherr, an Army engineer with Tank Automotive Research Development and Engineering Command.

He and others told Gov. Rick Snyder during a tour Tuesday that there is plenty of cross-talk between automakers and the Army about autonomous vehicles.

"We want to keep that up," Snyder said.

Basics already on market

"A lot of the basic building blocks of what you need to have in autonomous vehicles are in the marketplace now," said Sam Abuelsamid, a senior research analyst with Navigant research. "Over time, engineers have to integrate these systems to work together ... creating situational awareness of what's going on outside of the body of that vehicle and respond to the things going on around it."

Although the technology has come a long way, Chris Borroni-Bird, a vice president of strategic development at Qualcomm Technologies and a former General Motors Co. engineer, said that may not be the biggest problem. "These other issues, the consumer acceptance and legal issues, are important to address."

Buyers appear to be open to the idea. A survey conducted in September by Boston Consulting Group found 55 percent of consumers said they would be "likely or very likely buy a partially self-driving car within approximately five years." About 20 percent said they would pay more than $5,000 extra for features such as highway or urban autopilot.

The firm estimates a market opportunity of about $42 billion will exist for self-driving vehicles by 2025.

That leaves the legal issues. Mike O'Brien, vice president of corporate and product planning for Hyundai, is also an airplane pilot. He knows that if he is using autopilot and the plane crashes, he would be held responsible. But when it comes to self-driving cars, no government agency has determined who would be at fault for an accident, damage or death.

He's not sure what role automakers should have in those discussions.

"I'm not sure if we lead or follow with the legal issues," said O'Brien. "We're more focused on the product."

UM builds roadway test site

Although Michigan doesn't allow for the driving of self-piloted cars on main roadways, the University of Michigan is stepping up with M City, a replica of a roadway with up to five lanes, intersections, roundabouts, roadway markings and other topography.

It will allow automakers to "test new approaches in a safe, controlled and realistic environment," said Peter Sweatman, director of the U-M's Mobility Transformation Center.

For now, automakers will continue to develop technologies while moving into a future that will undoubtedly involve some kind of vehicle autonomy.

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles Chief Technology Officer Harald Wester said automated and autonomous technologies are a "natural evolution" to what companies are currently doing.

At the auto show Monday, Wester said new active technologies that assist drivers likely will not fit every situation — but they will eventually become a part of everyone's daily driving experience.

"It will be a huge help and support," he said. "It will significantly help to increase safety, avoid unnecessary incidents, injuries, fatalities."

Detroit News staff writers Melissa Burden, David Shepardson, Mike Wayland and Michael Martinez contributed.