M:Bility Conference: Panel Talks Factors Fueling Future of AV Industry

At AutoWorld’s M:Bility conference in Dearborn, MI, this week, a wide variety of topics pertaining to the mobility industry and the development of driverless technology were covered in keynote and panel discussions, including mapping and sensors, artificial intelligence, automotive data, mobility-as-a-service, electrification, and 5G connectivity.

However, running through all topics was a measure of caution as industry insiders worked to adjust expectations as to when fully autonomous (or nearly fully autonomous) vehicles (AVs) may become commercially available.

The conference’s opening panel—with Uber’s Stephen Lesh, head of hardware engineering and vehicle programs; GM’s Rob Kleinbaum, a senior fellow on its advanced analytics team; Thirdware’s Kristin Slanina, chief transformation officer; and Valeo North America’s chief technology officer James Schwyn—took up the question of how the future of mobility will unfold. In short? Slowly, they say.

The panelists agreed numerous factors will need to converge before mobility can take off at scale: The economics of AVs and smart city infrastructure need to be workable, federal safety regulations need to be drawn up, consumers need to buy in to the idea, and, perhaps most importantly, the technology needs to work —even in non-urban areas that lack population density.

Slanina said younger generations have different philosophies about driving and personal transport than their parents and grandparents, and those ideas will need to mesh with new municipal policies to have a significant impact on the way people think about transportation.

“Any kind of mobility network will need to address congestion,” Lesh agreed. “If you can solve a number of problems like environmental challenges and congestion, it will increase adoption.”

Due to the enormity of the task, no single entity will be able to pull it off alone, Slanina continued. “[Mobility and automotive] companies will need partnerships with universities, cities,” and other stakeholders, she said.

Schwyn said auto industry competitors and suppliers are already interacting differently as a result of mobility changes. He also pointed out, however, that no amount of collaboration will matter if the sensors, batteries, and neural networks needed to power self-driving cars aren’t up to par.

Kleinbaum identified a number of potential limiting factors when it comes to the AV market, including the failure of battery technology to fall far enough in price, an unfavorable regulatory environment, problems with sensors, and A.I. that can’t operate in non-mapped, non-geofenced areas. Current events, such as the recent grounding of Boeing’s 737 Max—a plane with autonomous systems—could also have a chilling effect on the progress of AVs, he said.

Slanina said a recent Thirdware survey of auto manufacturers and suppliers about various AV-related topics revealed increases in mobility budgets across the board. “But when we asked about monetization, the response was pitiful,” she recalled. That mismatch, between money spent and near-term return on investment, means big-money acquisitions of startups by automotive players are not living up to their expected values, which is slowing the development of self-driving cars.

Schwyn pointed out that getting AVs to drive properly in sunny, urban areas in the U.S.—“one of the easiest locations to drive in the world”—has turned out to be trickier than expected. “The next step may require new technology,” he said.

The panel seemed less concerned about consumer acceptance. Provided AVs prove safer than the “angry, drunk, and distracted” way people drive now, that shouldn’t be an obstacle to adoption, Slanina said. Consumers will eagerly embrace the opportunity to increase safety, decrease congestion, and take advantage of the downtime a robot driver would provide, Kleinbaum said.

The panel acknowledged that the mobility industry will take shape differently in different parts of the world depending on national priorities, regulations, and politics. In Kenya, for example, ridehailing drivers make more money from cancellation fees than from giving rides because traffic is so congested, Kleinbaum said. He also anticipates that a global currency will be needed to ensure operability in places where credit cards aren’t common. Companies in the U.S. and China are poised to be the first to deploy AVs, they said.

Finally, on the question of when and how the mobility industry will evolve, panelists seemed to think the only thing certain is that major changes have already occurred.  Schwyn predicted the players heading the pack now will eventually condense and clear leaders will emerge. “That’s a tremendous opportunity for us, coming from the legacy side of the equation,” he said.

“The landscape is already changing,” Slanina agreed. “New interests are coming in, [car manufacturers] are now trying to partner with and buy startups—it’s almost impossible to keep track. Who will win? It’s about who offers the best service and customer experience.”

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