Imagine a car with no steering wheel and no pedals, like the one General Motors says it will mass-produce by next year. The automaker made the announcement Jan. 12, creating a big splash just prior to the annual Detroit Auto Show.
That sort of fully autonomous vehicle would only be used for ride-hailing services in select major cities, but GM’s bold declaration was another step toward the inevitable future when cars drive themselves and people are just along for the ride.
“Cadillac and General Motors have billions of dollars invested in this new technology,” said Red Noland Cadillac dealer Mike Jorgensen.
The other big automakers are also heavily invested, along with newer players in the industry like Tesla and Google.
How could that affect dealerships such as Jorgensen’s in Motor City, and would it eliminate jobs? Jorgensen said he has more questions than answers at this point.
“Sometimes I feel a little like the guy on Main Street in 1899 who was selling horses and buggies about the time the car was invented,” Jorgensen said. “He was the guy saying that cars would never replace the horse.
“Looking through the lens of what I know today, though, there is still a lot of technology that needs to be developed and public infrastructure that needs to be developed before driverless cars can be effective.”
Dealerships are safe
Mike Cimino is vice president at Phil Long Dealerships, which boasts 14 franchises under 25 rooftops. He’s not overly concerned about the future of those dealerships as he doesn’t consider autonomous vehicles a threat to the industry.
“As any new technology moves forward, it opens new opportunities for dealerships,” he said. “We’ll still sell, repair, trade and renew cars for people and businesses. And autonomous cars will create a whole new market.”
Noted futurist Thomas Frey, who founded the DaVinci Institute, a think tank in Westminster, said car dealerships will continue to thrive.
“I think it will take driverless cars longer to make an impact than most people think,” said Frey, who spent 15 years with IBM as an engineer and designer before leaving in 1991, when he started the first of his 17 businesses. “There are about 263 million cars registered in the United States, so I think it will be a two- to three-decade transition.”
Frey said it’s too early for GM’s car without a steering wheel, “but [automobile manufacturers] think we’re almost ready.”
Colorado’s I-25 got a taste of the future in October 2016 when a self-driving tractor-trailer delivered a load of Budweiser beer from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs. A driver monitored the trip from a sleeping berth but never took the wheel.
Panasonic has created a driverless shuttle that would take people from Denver’s light rail at 61st and Pena Station to nearby offices or a bus stop; it should begin operation as early as this spring.
Autonomous vehicle technology includes LiDAR — light detection and ranging, which determines depth — as well as cameras, radar and sensors for a 360-degree view.
Safety should improve, especially since autonomous vehicles will not have drivers who are impaired, distracted, overly aggressive or driving too fast. That should ease the burden on law enforcement and the courts.
Prior to entire roads being dedicated to autonomous vehicles, there will likely be a lane or two, as with carpool lanes.
How the vehicles will deal with inclement weather is a source of contention. Frey said his friend has developed a “smart stripe” and antennas for the side of roads to improve safety. “We just have to implement 300 million miles of it,” Frey said.
He said no economic studies have been done regarding autonomous vehicles becoming prominent, and they would be speculative at this point, but he said people could be more productive if they are working in the car, rather than driving.
A big difference for cities, Frey said, would be the elimination of traffic fines whenever fully autonomous vehicles fill the roads.
“In 2015, New York City had $1.9 billion in traffic violations,” he said. “Driverless cars would eliminate a lot of money for a lot of cities.”
Jobs may change
About 17.2 million new cars and 54 million used cars were sold in the United States last year. That accounts for a lot of jobs: sales people, technicians and administration.
Frey said many jobs would become obsolete with the advent of autonomous cars but that new positions will be created — “ride experience” designers, traffic flow analysts, operators of fast food drones that will dock with moving cars, traffic system planners, designers and monitors, automated traffic architects and engineers, and luxury vehicle designers.
Among the jobs he says will be eliminated are drivers for taxis and similar companies; delivery jobs like FedEx, UPS and the post office; bus drivers; truck drivers; courier jobs; valet jobs; chauffeur and limo drivers; car licensing and registration jobs; rental car agents; and many more.
“I think driverless cars becomes the most disruptive force in human history, more than the invention of the wheel, fire or electricity,” Frey said. “This will greatly affect the health care and insurance industries. We had 4.4 million [traffic] accidents last year. If we can get the car industry as safe as airlines, that will be huge.”
Cimino said Phil Long Dealerships has nearly 1,000 employees, and he doesn’t think any of those jobs are likely to disappear.
“New technology always leads to the opening of new businesses and has a way of creating new jobs,” he said.
Jorgensen said the Red Noland Auto Group has 127 employees and doesn’t believe that will change.
“I do know the manufacturer is still encouraging us to expand and remodel our facility,” Jorgensen said. “They’re asking us to invest millions, and we’re on the cusp of doing that in a dealership we built from the ground up in 2004.”
That’s at the Red Noland Auto Group’s dealership in Motor City that sells Jaguars, Land Rovers and Infinitis.
Thom Buckley, president and partner of the dealership, said smarter cars are already helping drivers be safer and that will lead to an uptick in sales.
“Safety is always the most important thing to people,” Buckley said. “But I still believe, even three or four decades from now, that people will still enjoy driving and will want to do it themselves, whether that’s a Sunday drive in the mountains or a fun trip across country.”
Parallel parking wonder
Jorgensen said the future might look a little different for car dealers, but “the smart move is to stay informed.”
“As a franchised dealership, I have to take my cue from the manufacturer,” he said. “I sell what they give me, and we rely on them for the product.”
Cadillac vehicles already offer the “Super Cruise” package, which can be used on limited access freeways, and includes adaptive cruise control that regulates speed and space between vehicles, as well as lane adjustment.
While on a test drive, it was eerie to watch the steering wheel adjust to move the Cadillac Escalade back into the proper driving lane on Interstate 25, and even more so when the vehicle parallel parked itself behind another car, relying on the driver only to apply the brakes.
It was a look into the future, when people will simply sit back and let the vehicle do the driving. Many people, including Frey, think that fewer people will buy cars and instead will rely on a ride-sharing vehicle to pick them up or split the cost of a driverless car with neighbors or friends.
“When technology opens doors, there is always opportunity,” Jorgensen said. “But what could change for us? I don’t know. I’m in the traditional retail environment with bricks and mortar. The future could mean that fewer people own cars, and buy cars, and simply beckon a [ride-sharing] car to their doorstep.”
Level 0 is No Automation — Driver performs all driving tasks.
Level 1 is Driver Assistance — Vehicle is controlled by the driver, but some driving assist features may be included in the vehicle design.
Level 2 is Partial Automation — Vehicle has combined automated functions, like acceleration and steering, but the driver must remain engaged with the driving task and monitor the environment at all times.
Level 3 is Conditional Automation — Driver is a necessity, but is not required to monitor the environment. The driver must be ready to take control of the vehicle at all times without notice.
Level 4 is High Automation — The vehicle is capable of performing all driving functions under certain conditions. The driver may have the option to control the vehicle.
Level 5 is Full Automation — The vehicle is capable of performing all driving functions under all conditions. The driver may have the option to control the vehicle.
— Society of Automotive Engineers