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With the announcement yesterday of Ford ousting its old-school CEO and replacing him with a guy who had previously been working on their autonomous vehicles division (and before that, I kid you not, he sold office furniture), yet another grain of sand—albeit a large one—has fallen into the Auto2 [remember what that means? see my first blog post!] hourglass. The clock is undeniably ticking towards the time when putting your feet up and letting your car doing the driving will become de rigueur.
This is an entirely new industry; it’s not the latest in anti-lock brakes or the new-and-improved electric car—as this technology becomes commonplace, it has the potential (if not the certainty) of changing the entire transportation industry. It will be the automakers who embrace this brave new world that will continue to be ... automakers. The era of designing and marketing cars to the end-users alone will be over.
Bill Hampton, editor-in-chief at Auto Beat Daily, said it succinctly: “The demise of Mark Fields [and the rise of Jim Hackett] represents the challenge facing the auto industry in general—how do you keep doing your traditional business while you move into self-driving cars and vehicle connectivity and car sharing and ride sharing? You don’t see any established car company in any country that has this thing figured out.”
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SAE International is a global association of engineers and related technical experts in the aerospace, automotive, and commercial-vehicle industries. First issued in January 2014, they defined the J3016 standard, subsequently adopted by the U.S. Department of Transportation: Taxonomy and Definitions for Terms Related to On-Road Motor Vehicle Automated Driving Systems. In this (incredibly detailed and complicated) standards document, they identified six discrete levels of vehicle autonomy. (I won’t pretend to have read the entire thing, but I will say that they did try to make it easier for novices like myself, in providing a free summary document!)
I’ll describe each level, looking through the lens of my own car-driving experience. For a frame of reference, I am in my 40s, currently live near Silicon Valley, and now have two teenaged boys.
This is the car you probably learned how to drive on in the late-'80s. It had windows that have handles to roll down, a car door lock that you must flip up and down with a finger, a gearshift that used a clutch. It had no power steering, no ABS. You dreaded parallel parking and driving in San Francisco (or any traffic-filled and hilly place, really) in this car. You paid a great deal of attention to its RPMs and wrote down the mileage in a little notebook in the glove box, because that's what your parents did, and you kinda sorta remember the gasoline shortages in the '70s. It probably handled like farm equipment.
It may have had a radio. If you were lucky, it might have had a tape deck. Air conditioning was just a dream.
This might have been the first car that you bought, maybe in the '90s. It likely had an automatic transmission, which you thought might be a good idea, after never quite mastering the skill of driving up Portrero Hill in San Francisco. Power steering made parallel parking SO much easier, and ABS helped you get over your fear of driving in the snow when you went to Tahoe. You were intrigued by the “adaptive cruise control” button but weren’t sure how to use it. (Why was it asking you about your resume?)
This is the first car you gave a name to, and it might have had a CD player, but it skipped a lot and eventually, your Best of Queen CD got stuck inside and you could never get it back. It got stolen once, but it was recovered with an empty tank of gas and the CD still stuck.
You might have driven it across the country. You eventually learned what the cruise control buttons meant. The car might have broken down somewhere in Nevada and then that time in Kansas—or was it Arkansas—but you finally got to your destination with a big repair bill and brand-new [brakes, transmission, tires, battery, air conditioner, fuel pump…]
Fast-forward a couple of cars later, to about 2012, and you had kids who terrified you: both because you couldn’t see behind you (that news article of the guy running over his kids as they played in the driveway haunted you), and carrying on a conversation with a sullen twelve-year-old greatly impaired your driving ability—and you liked the idea of driver assistance. (There were days that the only thing that kept you going was your morning coffee and wishing they would just slow down enough for you to catch your breath. You needed all the help you could get.) You wished driver assistance also applied to parenting.
You saw that some new electric vehicles offered these Level-2 features (though, because it was 2012, you didn’t refer to them that way), and it sounded good to you.You liked the idea of being monitored while you drive, to make sure you wouldn't fall asleep at the wheel. Knowing the car was supporting you on your commutes and chauffeuring duties was a relief.
Merging onto a highway and Silicon Valley traffic was still the bane of your existence, though. You might have slapped an “I used to be cool” bumper sticker on the back. But it was nice to have the extra help.
Stay tuned for the next levels, as I pull out my crystal ball and wait for the oracle (small "o") to speak to me of the future...