Will Porsche Fans Ever Live in a Driverless World? Porsche Says No.

Xconomy San Francisco — 

Imagine the transportation future 20 years from now. Here’s one way things could roll on a weekday: Many of us get picked up at home by a sturdy, standardized, driverless car that will also scoop up a few of our neighbors who work at other businesses near ours.

Entering the highway, the vehicle automatically links to a platoon of similar self-driving cars headed in the same direction, and they all conform to a safe speed that maximizes energy efficiency.

But if we passengers look out the window, will we spot amid the many autonomous vehicle platoons a lone human driver powering along freely at the wheel of a bronze SUV or a flaming red Porsche?

Porsche, for its part, says yes.

It’s not that the German luxury automaker is rejecting the potential of driverless technology, or the digital connections that are transforming navigation, safety, mass transit, city planning, and a host of other arenas. In fact, Porsche is currently investing in digital technologies, and has a long-term plan for some autonomous driving features.

But Porsche, with its origins in auto racing in the 1930s and its later development of high-performance sports cars, is determined to hold out against the common assumption that vehicle ownership will largely fade out if efficient, low-cost transportation-as-a-service—similar to the scenario above—becomes commonplace.

“We still believe at Porsche that personal car ownership is going to play an important role in the future,’’ says Stephan Baral, a Silicon Valley-based leader at Porsche Digital, a global Porsche unit developing software-enhanced experiences for the car brand. Baral, one of Porsche Digital’s top two executives in the United States, also oversees its venture capital arm, which scouts for innovative mobility startups that could make for good strategic or financial investments.

Porsche’s long-term strategy is a balancing act: The company aims to preserve its luxury cachet while also making Porsche ownership a more inclusive club, through various new options that are accessible to a larger group of people. (More on those initiatives below.) By broadening its global constituency in these ways, the company may be better able to weather the cultural and technological shifts to come. For example: If transportation-as-a-service models someday deliver popular, affordable rides to the majority of people, and roadway infrastructure is redesigned for connected, coordinated, and autonomous vehicles, will governments still keep a lane open for the maverick solo driver in a Porsche 911 Carrera?

Regional governments are already taking a more active role in regulating traffic flow—spurred in part by transportation technology companies that hardly had such a result in mind. For example, the city of New York has imposed limits on the hours when ride-hailing cars can circulate in congested downtown neighborhoods as they wait to get a fare. Although these restrictions are aimed at companies such as Uber (NYSE: UBER) and Lyft (NASDAQ: LYFT), they also limit roadway access for individual car owners who drive for those businesses as contract workers.

Mobility companies such as trip planner app developers are also encouraging cities to mine the data they collect on factors such as trip volume and traffic timing, so the cities can better plan their infrastructure projects and transportation policies. And big companies such as Intel (NASDAQ: INTC) and Ford (NYSE: F) are creating cloud-based hubs capable of linking government agencies, connected cars, automakers, consumers, vehicle service providers, and other players, so they can coordinate for many purposes yet to be fully envisioned.

Baral says he expects that technology, including autonomous technology, will change the transportation system significantly. Porsche plans to adapt to those changes—while still keeping humans in the driver’s seat, he says.

Porsches don’t have self-driving capabilities yet, and there’s no timeline set to install them, the company says. But if and when Porsches do include autonomous driving options, Baral says they’ll be activated at the discretion of the driver, probably to carry out dull tasks like inching through the rush hour commute or driving up a parking garage ramp. When the road opens up ahead, the driver can always take over, he says.

“We think Porsche has always been, and will always be, about the driving experience,’’ he says. “There will always be a steering wheel.’’

If certain highways are someday reserved for platoons of autonomous cars, Porsche could equip its self-driving systems to detect the caravans and join the car up with one of them, Baral says. Drivers would switch on the self-driving module.

But what if autonomous cars eventually build up a traffic safety record far superior to the performance of human drivers? Could humans be excluded from driving in certain traffic regions? Baral isn’t losing sleep over such possibilities at this point. Bringing passenger cars up to that high level of safe autonomy still presents significant challenges, he says. “I’m quite convinced that it will take longer than people think,” he adds.

In the meantime, Porsche is trying to enlarge the league of Porsche loyalists, advocates of car ownership, and fans of the human driving experience. To do that, the company is augmenting its traditional purchase and car lease options with programs described as “flexible ownership.’’

Under the Porsche Passport program, a driver can jump behind the wheel of a Boxster sports car or Porsche SUV without paying $60,000 or more for a taste of Porsche ownership. Porsche Passport could be described as “ownership-as-a-service.’’

Under the initiative, launched in Atlanta and slated to spread to four other yet-unnamed cities in North America, drivers can pay a monthly subscription fee for continuous use of a Porsche—and they can swap the car for a different model at any time. At the top monthly rate of $3,000, subscribers can choose among 22 models. It’s like a Porsche wardrobe, with a convertible number for that weekend getaway, and sleek sedans for the opera’s opening night.

Porsche says the Passport program is drawing in a new demographic: 80 percent of subscribers have never before owned a Porsche. Some swap their cars as much as four times a month. Cars are delivered to … Next Page »

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