Two giants are beginning to wage an epic battle for the soul of the auto industry, and yet hardly anyone seems to take notice.
One entity is the traditional auto industry. The other is led by Google and other mostly non-automotive technology companies. The battle is over self-driving cars.
The traditional auto industry envisions autonomous, self-driving vehicles mostly as a marketing device, a means of creating futuristic aspirational vehicles for a new generation of drivers who do not care much about the joy of driving.
Auto makers also see autonomous cars as a way to tout current and upcoming active-safety technologies such as automatic emergency braking and steering systems. They partially take control of the vehicle when the driver is distracted or unable to respond quickly enough to avoid a crash.
Google sees autonomous vehicles as an opportunity to make a big move into the personal-transportation market, says Gary Silberg, lead partner for the automotive industry at KPMG. The Internet company views cars and trucks simply as complex mobile computers that require software, microprocessors, radar and other technologies it can provide, Silberg says.
According to “Self-Driving Cars: The Next Revolution,” a recent study by KPMG and the Center for Automotive Research, if autonomous vehicles replace conventional ones and became driverless family taxis in the future, the type of engine they have and the unique driving dynamics they might exhibit becomes unimportant.
And if autonomy makes crashes a thing of the past, then the need for highly engineered body structures and passive safety features such as airbags is eliminated. Vehicles then become simple mechanical devices that can be built by just about anyone. The only important parts are the electronics and sensors, and these all could be made by Google and its suppliers. So Google takes over the auto industry, outsources the greasy parts to whomever and the old-fashioned auto industry turns to dust.
To those of us immersed in automotive, it sounds like an Orwellian nightmare, but Silberg says it is a long-term business plan, not a fantasy on the West Coast.
KPMG and CAR researchers interviewed dozens of executives and scientists in the traditional auto industry and at major Silicon Valley companies such as Intel, Cisco, Microsoft and others in addition to Google, Silberg says.
“Speaking to the West Coast companies and to auto makers, we found quite an alarming difference,” Silberg says during a recent WardsAuto Webinar: “Can We Create Cars that Don’t Crash?” http://wardsauto.com/free-webinar-crash-avoidance
“The people on the West Coast want to change the world, and their view is this is going to happen very quickly,” Silberg says. “And if auto makers do not make it happen, then they will move in and make it happen.”
Meanwhile, auto makers lately seem to be taking the opposite approach, trying to manage expectations for how soon fully autonomous vehicles will be possible.
Hours after California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill in late September authorizing state regulations for autonomous vehicles by 2015, legislation Google lobbied for heavily, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers warned of the need to go slow.
For starters, auto makers are concerned about liability issues and the security of electronic guidance and sensing systems.
John Capp, director-safety electronics and innovation at, says GM has been experimenting with self-driving vehicles since the 1950s, but warns the leap from driver-assistance technologies to fully autonomous vehicles is huge.
Hideki Hada, general manager integrated vehicle systems at theTechnical Center, says during the webinar today’s sophisticated sensing systems still have trouble detecting a child that walks into the street from between two parked cars or a deer that suddenly leaps in front of a vehicle traveling on a country road.
Silberg brushes off such concerns. “We fundamentally believe the market wants self-driving cars and the market will pay for it,” he says.
A major force behind growing demand is not young people who want to text and drive, but the skyrocketing number of older people who no longer can drive because of their age or medical problems, Silberg says. This demographic has both the need and the money to pay for autonomous vehicles, he says.
Auto makers recognize the big risks associated with moving too quickly into autonomous vehicles. But it is becoming clearer every day that moving too slowly also has its dangers.