They promised us self-driving cars.
Almost a decade ago, automakers predicted that driving your own car or truck would now be akin to riding a horse — something you do on weekends for recreation.
During the weekdays, you will be taken to the office, grocery store and hairdresser either in your own robotic car or in a self-driving taxi.
Autonomous vehicles promise safer roads and streets, more mobility for elderly people who can no longer drive, and the potential for less municipal investment in parking garages as robotaxis replace private vehicle ownership.
automaker have invested more than $120 billion worldwide for automated vehicle technology. Michigan made a big bet on self-driving cars in 2016 $17 million seeded to the newly formed, 500 acres American Center for Mobilitya test and research facility at Willow Run where Ford Motor Co. manufactured bombers during World War II.
The University of Michigan was founded in 2014 MCitya 32-acre early research and proving ground at the former Pfizer research complex touted as the world’s first proving ground for autonomous and connected vehicles.
Connected vehicles can “talk” to each other and traffic management infrastructure to increase safety and improve traffic flow.
But suddenly the prospect of self-driving cars that will soon take to the streets has fallen into a ditch.
“The dream of Uber cabs zipping across the country and getting people to their destinations is slowing sharply,” said Brett Smith, director of technology at the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor.
(I realize that for some, the prospect of riding in a vehicle they have no control over is a nightmare, not a dream.)
Automakers “just aren’t talking about (self-driving cars) or forecasting it,” Smith told me.
A big signal that autonomous vehicles are years, if not decades, away came late last month when Pittsburgh-based Argo AI, a major developer of autonomous vehicle technology, announced it shut down.
The move came after major backers Ford and Volkswagen pulled the plug on the company. Ford suffered a $2.7 billion loss on its investment.
“To have that written off is really remarkable,” said Eric Paul Dennis, a former autonomous vehicle researcher who is now an infrastructure research associate at Michigan’s Citizens Research Council.
In the meantime, Reuters reported that Tesla will be prosecuted for its much-criticized claims about self-driving cars, in another blow to autonomous vehicle technology.
Ironically, the development costs of electric vehicles needed for autonomous driving are partly responsible for the unused autonomous vehicle spending.
The transition from gasoline-powered to electric-powered vehicles is progressing faster than many expected. Automakers, faced with huge capital requirements to develop these cars and trucks, are shifting resources from autonomous vehicles to electric cars and trucks.
A recently Reuters analysis found that the world’s top automakers plan to spend $1.2 trillion on electric vehicles, batteries and related materials by 2030. That is almost as much than the gross domestic product of Mexico.
“The auto industry is extremely capital intensive, especially electrification. You can’t place bets everywhere,” said Glenn Stevens, executive director of MICHauto and board member of the American Center for Mobility.
Also, building a self-driving vehicle has proven to be a lot more difficult than automakers were willing to admit a few years ago. Detecting obstacles like pedestrians and parked vehicles and dealing with various weather variables is really difficult, experts say.
The reality has come. This is a complex problem.
– Greg McGuire, Managing Director of MCity
Smith noted that some companies aren’t giving up on their autonomous vehicle ambitions. General Motors Co.’s cruise unit, for example, recently received official approval deploy driverless robotic taxis on the streets of San Francisco.
And there’s still work to be done to advance connected vehicles and advanced driver assistance systems, key elements in perfecting self-driving cars.
Driver assistance systems include limited hands-free driving, lane departure warning and drowsiness detection.
These systems are part of a broader category of Partial self-driving functions where Ford and other companies are now focused.
“There is great value in continuing to explore these things,” Smith said. “They are research worthy.”
Reality has taken hold. It’s a complex problem,” said Greg McGuire, Managing Director of MCity
Officials say the American Center for Mobility and MCity are changing as the auto industry they serve changes.
ACM announced in August that a New Mexico company was building a unique hydrogen production center in the center to fuel hydrogen-powered vehicles. Hydrogen cars are considered by many in the industry to be the “holy grail” of clean energy cars and trucks.
And in September, MCity won a $5.1 million National Science Foundation grant that will enable researchers from around the world test remotely automated vehicle software on its simulated city test track.
“I think the state has done a great job of staying relevant,” McGuire said.
Research at ACM and MCity “is more important than ever to our automotive ecosystem,” said Stevens.
But don’t expect human-powered cars and trucks to go the way of the horse any time soon.
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