Howes: Self-driving vehicle hype forced to reckon with reality
Allen Park — By all rights, Bryan Salesky might be the last guy you’d expect to hear managing expectations about fully self-driving vehicles becoming reality, and doing so in volume.
As CEO of Argo AI, he helps lead the autonomous-vehicle programs for partners Ford Motor Co. and Volkswagen AG. He’s an early alum of Google’s self-driving vehicle program, a product of Carnegie-Mellon University’s esteemed National Robotics Engineering Center, a native of Woodhaven who feels the engineering and manufacturing know-how of the Detroit auto industry deeply in his bones.
That makes him smart enough to know the next-generation auto industry won’t arrive any sooner because he and others risk overselling its potential. Not to investors looking for the next big score. And not to dreamers besotted with a Silicon Valley fairy tale that suggests electrified, self-driving automotive nirvana is just around the corner — and you won’t need a steering wheel to make the turn.
Not so fast. After years of hype — of General Motors Co. touting its "firsts" with its Chevrolet Bolt EV, of Elon Musk and his Tesla Inc. thumbing their collective noses at the legacy auto industry, of early adopters predicting Auto 2.0 would already be here — reality is setting in.
"Ever since the Uber accident (in Arizona that killed a pedestrian), the tone has changed and people are asking tons of questions," Salesky, 39, said in an interview Wednesday at Argo's engineering center roughly a mile south of Ford World Headquarters. "It was a catalyst, a reset point."
It also represented a stiff dose of the real world, a bracing confluence of engineering, human fallibility and unsuspecting folks forced to live with the consequences of the actions of others. Here's a sampling:
Widely touted federal legislation to speed development of self-driving vehicles remains stuck in Congress, with scant prospect of moving into first gear. The inaction is forcing states and cities to adopt guidelines, if not standards, to both encourage and monitor the use of self-driving vehicles. But the need for federal standards remains.
Concerns over who, exactly, would be to blame in crashes — the passenger or, more likely, the fleet owner — complicates familiar liability concerns. The net result is a potential bonanza for trial lawyers whose stock-in-trade is pinning culpability on whoever has the deepest pockets, a concept more familiar to legacy automakers than try-and-fail Silicon Valley.
Most self-driving vehicles as currently envisioned don't depend on costly infrastructure investments to operate. But new infrastructure like smart street lights and smart pedestrian sensors able to "look" around corners could improve traffic flow — provided government (?) is willing to invest in them.
An article of faith among the AV believers is that self-driving vehicles must be powered by electricity stored in batteries. But if the first push of AVs are likely to be fleets used to carry passengers in urban settings, potential customers would be right to expect the vehicles are heated in winter, cooled in summer and equipped with the latest info-tainment systems.
All of that would consume power, drain batteries and force the fleets to spend more times on chargers. That reduces the "duty cycle" justifying the economic case for adopting EVs instead of gas-electric hybrids with longer cycle times and more robust capability to run climate and entertainment systems.
Consumer demand is not matching previously hyped expectations. The growing success of Tesla here and in China is demonstrating a premium market exists for electric vehicles, but automakers are placing increasing emphasis on electrifying pickups and larger SUVs in an effort to bring EVs to the masses.
And too many consumers conflate EVs with AVs, perpetuating the worry that tech mobility companies like Salesky's Argo are trying to eliminate driving, trying to take away the freedom of the American road in a grand scheme to control the population.
Salesky, the metro Detroit native, isn't buying it. First, self-driving vehicles powered entirely or in part by electricity are likely to be introduced, tested and used in densely populated markets like Washington, Manhattan and San Francisco, Mumbai, Shanghai and maybe Paris — not in the sprawling suburbs of such middle-American metro areas as Atlanta, Dallas and Detroit.
In short, for most of the country, self-driving vehicles are not about them. But they do herald next-generation personal transportation likely to take longer to arrive than originally advertised.
Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, listen to his Saturday podcasts, or catch him frequently on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.