Like a Foxtrot, 2020 Likely to be Quick-Quick-Slow for Auto Tech

Technology is firmly ensconced in the auto industry, with automakers, Tier 1s and other suppliers convinced that software and technology will become at least as important as vehicle components.

The magnificent scramble toward autonomy has been won and we’re in for a more sedate pace of innovation. Much of this innovation will be less than obvious to car buyers, except for zealot early adopters but it will be important for society leading, eventually, to safer roads and clearer skies.

The Consumer Electronics Show (CES) will continue as usual with its pipe-dreams but most automakers realize that some technologies are much further off than expected. Here are our predictions for the year ahead:

We backpedal on autonomous hype. At one time, it seemed so reasonable to predict that truly autonomous vehicles would arrive by 2020. Oops, it’s 2020 now. It turned out that fitting automobiles with sensors, computers, ECUs and modems was doable but putting them into drivers’ hands was not. When it comes to passenger and commercial vehicles, there are plenty of pilots claiming that they can navigate as safely as any human driver can.

Unfortunately, that’s not enough. It’s possible (…though highly unlikely – Ed) that a human driver may not have seen the Tempe woman who tried to cross in the dark a four-lane road pushing her bicycle and worldly possessions and hit her just as the autonomous Uber did. Yet, the outrage at this accident was proportionate to the hype.

We’ll demand more from auto tech than we do from people and, maybe, that’s as it should be. Meanwhile, the accidents and fatalities, when seen against the hype, embitter many. In response, there’s an attempt to lower expectations. When it comes to autonomous driving, the strategy of under promise and over deliver is the right one.

Consumer distrust of self-driving cars continues. Never mind the statistics, human beings cannot be convinced that machines are smarter than them and that goes for self-driving cars. Consumer surveys consistently find that the public is becoming less willing to trust themselves to an AV the more they find out about them.

Public demonstrations and pilots continue, without seeming to make much headway against public sentiment. During North Americac International Auto Show (NAIAS) 2020, five “automated” shuttles, not “autonomous”, with human back-up personnel will travel the streets of Detroit in the Michigan Mobility Challenge. Anyone will be able to hop on and off, even if they’re not going to the show. Depending on how it goes, the demos may win some minds and hearts. Still, most people will continue to give side eye to AVs.

DSRC fades. Late last year, in the United States, the FCC published a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that would reserve part of the 5.9GHz frequency range for cellular vehicle-to-everything, or C-V2X. C-V2X runs on 4G or 5G technology and will let vehicles communicate with each other and infrastructure.

What’s more important, the FCC might require automakers to use C-V2X. The lack of such a rule inhibited the adoption of DSRC as the standard for vehicle-to-vehicle communications, although some automakers have rolled it out. If the FCC actually takes a position, C-V2X could be the standard the industry can unite around albeit not in Europe which remains wedded to DSRC that it sees as a more robust technology in the near term.

Buzz moves to the infrastructure. Autonomous vehicles can’t go it alone. Instead of placing all the burden of identifying road markings and conditions on the vehicle’s systems, intelligent infrastructure and V2X communications will make AV navigation more robust and safer.

ABI predicts that this is the year cities will adopt advanced urban strategies. As more municipalities strive to transform themselves into smart cities, they can provide an important market for vendors of software and hardware. Plus, the benefits of smart road infrastructure elements for conventional traffic are clear and demonstrable. This will be the year that smart traffic lights will become sexy.

For navigation and apps, we’ll still love our phones more than our cars. Kagan estimates that more than 50% of the installed base of cars in the US will be connected in 2020 but in-car apps still have a tough time competing with smartphones for the majority of consumers. EMarketer predicts that the use of phone-based maps and navigation will continue to grow, reaching a penetration of 67.6% by 2021. The reasons for the reluctance to turn to the car’s apps haven’t changed. People are unwilling to pay extra to use automotive apps or to update in-car nav systems but, even more, the phone interface is familiar and, often, easier to use.

No one will solve the issues with data sharing. Everyone agrees that automotive data is priceless. Rating insurance risk, understanding commercial driver behavior, predictive maintenance – the potential uses are myriad. However, someone needs to aggregate and standardize vehicle data and, somehow, manage its exchange. There are more than a few vendors that want to profit from that role but carmakers are cautious about opening their data to third parties.

Then, there’s consumer pushback. The persistent data security fails of credit card issuers and retailers, among other entities, taints any new service that aims to gather intel on what people do. With California’s Consumer Privacy Act taking effect, the public is getting an earful about how they’re tracked and how their information is sold. With most car owners seeing their cars as an extension of their castles, they’ll be leery of plans to transmit and store data from personal vehicles, let alone share it with third parties. In Europe, the pushback is probably even worse aided by GDPR requirements over personal data rights.

Personal car ownership will remain the dominant model. Although ride-hailing and micromobility have made a dent in car ownership in cities, there’s a wide world of suburban and rural areas where it’s not feasible to hop a scooter or expect a TNC driver to travel ten or twenty miles for a pickup. Even in the smartest cities, true multimodal mobility is a decade away and, until public transportation gets properly up to speed, people will need their cars.

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