TU-Automotive Detroit 2019 Day 2: Changes are coming to a car near you – both predictably and in ways you’ll never expect

They say change is the only constant, and that might actually be true for the automotive industry. Between the mishmash of mobility services, new ways to purchase or rent a vehicle, and a plethora of ways for occupants to interact with the cockpit, change is inevitable.

“The autonomous vehicle of tomorrow cannot be autonomous in a bubble,” said Colin Dhillon, chief technical officer of the Automotive Parts Manufacturer’s Association (APMA). “It has to be supported by its infrastructure. Think about it: if the communication is only happening within the vehicles and not with the infrastructure, it is very limiting to the technology.”

That’s only the beginning. Scott Burnell, global lead for business development and partner management at Ford Motor Company, expects car interiors to transform as much as the living room has over the past several decades. He said the radio was once the center of it all, both in the car and at home. Now it’s all about multi-tasking with electronic devices – for those who don’t have to drive, at least.

“Today somebody has to be operating, but we can make these services available for everybody else,” said Burnell. “And then as we get more and more toward autonomous, we can bring that type of living room experience into the vehicle. That’s what we want to be able to provide.”

It’s no secret that autonomous vehicles could replace taxi and ride-hail drivers, but the transition might be more gradual than anticipated. Uber acknowledged this as it downplayed the bumpy road to autonomy.

“We’re building a transportation network, not a self-driving vehicle service,” said Stephen Lesh, head of hardware engineering and vehicle programs at Uber ATG. “Because of that we think the actual role of self-driving will happen in steps. There will be the initial introduction and a well-validated operational domain that the current technology can support, and that will be a piece of a larger hybrid transportation network. And then as the ability of the vehicle to cover more and more operational domains occurs, the vehicle will be able to take on more and more trips.”

Ride-hail vehicles have to come from somewhere, giving dealers a new avenue to sell cars. Whether or not this will make a difference in their quarterly numbers remains to be seen, but it could be significant if Uber, Lyft and others continue to grow.

“If I want to be a Lyft driver and I’m currently in a 2002 beat-up car, that’s probably not very attractive to potential riders,” said Richard Wallace, former VP of transportation systems analysis at the Center for Automotive Research. “A dealer can help me get into a newer, more attractive vehicle. It can work with loans, insurance, do all sorts of things to make me a better player. There are folks in Portland buying five cars just to put out on the road – they have no intention of ever driving them. But that’s an expense, so dealers again can help you finance that. There are many scenarios where dealers can survive the apocalypse.”

And if Karma Automotive has anything to say about it, renting a car might change as well.

“When you go to rent a car at a hotel, it is painful,” said Sean Hazaray, head of Karma Automotive’s mobility division. “The excitement for renting a car is lost – the appetite is lost – through that whole process. Now what if I told you that shiny red Karma Revero that’s in the lobby and you want to drive it, all you have to do is download the app? Spend a couple minutes entering your information, take a picture of your driver’s license and boom – you’re ready to drive off.”

Joining together

“When you think about mobility, it’s not a game that you can play solo.” That was one of the key messages Babak Khademi, Ridecell’s North American business development exec, stressed on the second day of TU-Automotive Detroit 2019. It was a message echoed by many of his colleagues throughout the day.

“It really is a collection of components that you have to bring in to make that experience come to life,” said Khademi. “It doesn’t make sense to go out and reinvent the wheel if somebody else has already perfected that requisite component.”

When asked if OEMs have the right infrastructure in place to fully embrace mobility services, Volkswagen’s Frank Weith gave a very short answer: no. He explained that OEMs are still learning and that they need to bring in different partners.

“We need to be able to manage our cost and bring that within a reasonable region where you can actually build a business around it,” said Weith, who leads connected and mobility services for Volkswagen Group of America. “Now you’re looking at different IT partners – something IoT-based, cloud hosted, the whole front-end interface, managing that experience. These are the fundamental components you have to put in place to build these open platforms.”

Weith added that there is a benefit to bringing in third-party companies that allow OEMs to avoid building everything from scratch. He suggested the potential for partnerships in ride-sharing, delivery services, and the entire ecosystem around them.

“We’re looking at a whole different ecosystem,” said Weith. “Carriers are a big player in the data pipeline – how we manage the data. It all boils down to finding that equation that makes it sustainable. We’re not in business to make a lot of money off this, but we have to be able to reinvest.”

Driving toward the future

TU-Automotive Detroit is well known for its expert panels and deep discussions, but the annual event also provides a great opportunity to actually experience the cars and mobility features of tomorrow.

VSI Labs, a researcher of active safety and automated vehicle technologies, delivered one of the more unique excursions, offering attendees the chance to ride in a driverless car. Equipped with an Ouster 64-channel LiDAR and a FLIR thermal camera, the vehicle was able to safely navigate a small, pre-recorded path within the parking lot.

The path was blocked off for safety reasons, but a simulated stop gave riders a glimpse of what would have happened if an obstacle had gotten in the way. It was a small but important first step in showcasing the technology’s safety.

Rear-seat mounted displays provided additional insight, revealing what the thermal camera sees – including things the naked eye might have missed, particularly at night. Both cars and people were clearly plotted on screen.

While the demonstration was short and vehicle speeds remained relatively slow, VSI Labs said that the test vehicle has successfully exceeded 70 miles per hour on the freeway. Autonomous cars will need to drive at least that fast if they are going to keep up with traditional automobiles.

Other day 2 highlights

In addition to all this great technology and the many insights into the future, TU-Automotive Detroit is home to an annual breakfast hosted by the Automotive Women’s Alliance Foundation. Dedicated to advancing and empowering women in the automotive industry, the AWA Foundation has awarded 170 scholarships totaling $422,000, allowing many young women to pursue careers in the automotive industry.

Board member Jane Bishop proudly announced three new scholarship recipients: Alexandra Jodzis, a senior at Oakland University – Honors College in Auburn Hills, MI; Ryann Kullmann, who is starting at Iowa State University of Science and Technology this fall; and Anna Sun, who is heading to MIT in Cambridge, MA.

“I’m so happy I get to be on the scholarship team,” said Bishop. “It’s the best job and it’s so great when you can tell someone you just won a $2,500 scholarship.”

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