Bipolar auto disorder: mixed messages at NY show

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

New York – You can sense the desire for an autonomous electric future in Gotham’s gridlocked streets: Impatient business people, Uber drivers and families find themselves stalled in cross-town traffic wasting precious time.

Ride-sharing company Waymo has ordered 20,000 of Jaguar’s five-passenger I-Pace EV sedans for its self-driving fleet.

Waymo and Jaguar opened the New York auto show early Tuesday with a lifeline to urban commuters: a gorgeous, five-passenger, self-driving Jaguar I-Pace EV with 360-degree lidar detection and a 240-mile battery range.

The future is here, right? Not so fast.

By the end of Tuesday, Jaguar had also introduced a 550-horsepower gas-guzzling variant of its F-Pace SUV. Wall Street’s NASDAQ index had stumbled – in part as Silicon Valley’s pet tech stocks faced the consequences of a fiery possibly self-driving Tesla crash in California and continued fallout from a fatal collision between an autonomous Uber Volvo XC90 and an Arizona pedestrian.

On the show floor, Volvo’s tight-lipped response to the Uber tragedy was as noticeable as Jaguar’s celebration of 20,000 I-Pace orders from Waymo.

The show’s bipolar nature points to the uncertainties that surround the industry’s massive investment in autonomous EVs. It’s an investment driven by the conflicting incentives of market opportunity (autonomy) and government regulation (electrification) – and a promise of safety that, in the words of best-selling author and Car and Driver contributor Malcolm Gladwell, “exchanges one class of risk for another.”

For small luxury-automakers like Volvo and Jaguar, there is an irresistible upside to partnering with ride-share giants like Uber and Waymo because it raises automakers’ profiles in a high-tech, eco-conscious segment of the marketplace. Autonomous ride-sharing also promises large sales volumes for EVs that have struggled to earn back their production costs.

“In joining forces with Waymo, we are pioneering to push the boundaries of technology,” Jaguar Land Rover CEO Ralf Speth said after the Waymo-Jaguar partnership was announced. “Together we will deliver the self-driving Waymo Jaguar I-Pace with the grace, space and eco-pace that customers expect.”

But the downside was painfully obvious as the video of the fatal Uber crash went viral. Suddenly, the carefully manicured reputation of Volvo as a safety brand was in jeopardy.

Volvo refused comment this week, sticking to a statement it released after the Uber incident which read in part: “Uber is cooperating with local and national authorities and Volvo is assisting in these investigations. We cannot speculate on the cause of the incident. We await the full investigation report.”

Large automakers like General Motors, Audi and Toyota have been careful to keep their autonomous testing in-house – partially out of a concern of being dependent other manufacturers’ technology, company insiders say.

In an auto show forum hosted by Car and Driver, Gladwell – a renowned author whose work explores the sometimes unexpected implications of technological progress – expressed broader concerns over the vulnerability of autonomous cars if they fulfill their promise as the dominant form of personal transportation.

“The automobile can be subject to malicious manipulation,” said Gladwell, drawing parallels with the persistent hacking problems other industries like banking have suffered as they have increased electronic services. “If I were a malicious hacker, I’d want to hack into 5,000 cars on I-95 during rush hour and cause a 9/11-type event.”

“I worry about this,” he said.

On the battery front, uncertainty over EV profitability has driven Jaguar to, paradoxically, make more gas-guzzling SUVs.

Moments after declaring the battery-powered I-Pace “the future” of sustainable transportation, Jaguar design boss Ian Callum on Tuesday night rolled out the 550-horse, sub-20 mpg, SVR performance version of the brand’s best-selling E-Pace ute.

“From the sublime to the ridiculous,” smiled Callum. That is, from the unprofitable to the very profitable.

Bipolar product disorder is perhaps no more pronounced than at Volkswagen which stunned New York with a Big Three-fighting Atlas Tanoak pickup truck concept.

The 3.6-liter V-6-powered pickup was announced as part of a “family” of Atlas vehicles based on the German automaker’s huge three-row Atlas SUV. The announcement came just three weeks after Volkswagen declared at the Geneva Auto Show its commitment to a gas-free, all-electric future with its family of ID electric cars: the Vizzion, Crozz and Buzz Microbus.

The product paradox is everywhere in New York’s Javits Convention Center. Toyota’s self-driving ePallette autonomous concept – on course for its Tokyo Olympics public debut in 2020 – shares the lineup with the Tacoma and Tundra pickups. Nissan’s stand showcased the company’s new electric Formula E race car even as it introduced an all-new Nissan Altima powered by a cutting-edge, variable-compression gas engine. A Chevy Bolt EV is yards away from a V-8 Camaro.

“Automakers have got to keep one foot in the present while planning for the future,” said Kelley Blue Book auto analyst Karl Brauer. “Companies like VW are following a similar model to GM, which claims they are a button-push away from an electric future – yet sell hundreds of thousands of profitable Silverado pickups a year.

“The companies that successfully fund their future are the ones that can win this battle.”

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.