Report: Integrated technology is the automotive future

Nora Naughton

Stand-alone technology like automation, connectivity and electrification won’t push the automotive industry forward by themselves. Rather, it’s a fusion of the three areas meshing together that will be game-changers, according to a report released Monday by the Center for Automotive Research.

The automotive research firm predicts that people will no longer make a distinction between these three areas of study in just a few decades.

It’s clear some automakers are already subscribing to this theory. General Motors Co. CEO Mary Barra told New York investors earlier this month that electric vehicles are the automaker’s preferred platform for developing autonomous technology. GM also recently outfitted 130 Chevrolet Bolts with automated technology for on-road testing.

“Clearly in the last two years, GM has been very proactive — really both talking about and delivering on the steppingstones to” self-driving and electrification, said Brett Smith, a CAR analyst who helped author the report.

Legacy automakers are struggling to garner the same enthusiasm fostered by the likes of Tesla, which was among the first automakers to master long-range electric vehicle technology while leading advancements in automated driving systems. Tesla is struggling to profit on these advancements, but it has found success in “delivering a vision, leveraging regulator credits, creating public excitement and maybe even laying the foundation for change that drives consumer expectations,” CAR wrote.

Volkswagen is attempting to replicate this hype with a re-imagining of one of its most iconic vehicles: the VW microbus. CAR says the new generation of the microbus, called the Buzz, is expected to be an automation, connectivity and electrification “game-changer for the company.” It is also a candidate for testing consumer reaction to the innovations.

GM, which acquired Cruise Automation to aggressively develop self-driving technology in 2016, looks to create shareholder hype Thursday when it shares its “vision for an autonomous future.”

“The traditional auto industry is looking at these new challengers and seeing the financial love they’re getting and the media love, and they’re realizing they can’t operate like they used to,” Smith said.

But financial gain for GM and other automakers is still in the decidedly non-electrified market, with SUVs and pickups driving profits for GM, Ford Motor Co. and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV.

While consumer adoption of the technologies hasn’t reached a critical mass, a reliance on the sharing economy may be key.

GM’s car-sharing business, Maven, drives passengers around in the non-automated Chevrolet Bolt, the first affordable all-electric vehicle to reach the mass market. Ford partnered with Lyft earlier this year, leading up to the 2021 launch date of Ford’s autonomous vehicles.

FCA, on the other hand, hitched its self-driving wagon to Google’s Waymo. The automaker’s hybrid Pacifica minivans are equipped with Waymo’s self-driving technology and recently ditched the driver altogether in a soon-to-be taxi service in the greater Phoenix area.

For mobility providers like Lyft and Uber, eliminating the driver represents significant cost savings. Electrification is the most viable way forward in that endeavor, according to CAR, as the car will need to recharge itself without driver intervention.

But the benefit of all of this integration could be a long way off, Smith said.

“The mobility industry is not going to change overnight,” he said. “It’s going to take a long time, and the question will be whether all of this technology and change is going to be what consumers want, and more importantly when will they want it?”