Quintessential car guy Bob Lutz, the father of the Chevy Volt and one-time Tesla admirer turned harsh critic, had some bad news for an audience of engineers at SAE International’s recent annual meeting in Detroit. Once vehicle autonomy reaches its logical conclusion, humans will be reduced to passengers in standardized, soulless automated vehicles. People who like to drive, and car companies that rely on branding, have another 25 years at the most.
Lutz’s speech recapitulated an article he wrote for Automotive News last November, in which he sadly concluded that “we are approaching the end of the automotive era.” As autonomy gradually takes over more and more of the driving task, “the end state will be the fully autonomous module with no capability for the driver to exercise command. You will call for it, it will arrive at your location, you’ll get in, input your destination and go to the freeway.”
Automated driving will erode the concepts of performance, luxury and mystique on which automakers build their brands. The autonomous vehicle will become a commodity, much like a subway train or a bus – just a module to get us from one place to another. That will mean the end of automotive brands as we know them. “The OEM is the link in the chain that is the most vulnerable,” Lutz said. “Do you really care who made the subway car?”
“The car as we know it will still be with us, in declining numbers, for a few more decades,” Lutz said, predicting that enthusiasts will meet at off-road tracks to have some fun with their retro toys, much as lovers of horses or sailboats do today. As for car dealers, they’re pretty much toast.
As is the case in today’s smartphone ecosystem, the fun and profit will be for the companies that package and market the service to consumers, not the ones who manufacture the hardware. However, automakers that can “move downstream and get into value creation” may be able to adapt to the brave new world. “General Motors sees the handwriting on the wall. It has created Maven and has bought into Cruise Automation and Lyft,” Lutz wrote in November. “It doesn’t want to be the handset provider. It wants to be the company that creates the value and captures the value, and it is making the right moves to be around when the transition occurs.”
As much as he regrets the end of an era, Lutz seems to believe that automation will be a good thing for society on the whole. He told the SAE engineers that automated driving will deliver “a vast improvement to national productivity” as traffic jams and accidents become rare events, and will eliminate perhaps 90% of the 40,000 annual traffic deaths in the US.
The time has come to leave the driving to machines. “Traffic is getting to the point where mobility is reduced,” says Lutz, and human drivers cause “enormous loss of time and efficiency, not to mention lives.”
People will always need to get around, and new technology is poised to deliver a more efficient way to do it. “The need is societal,” Lutz said, “and it is getting harder and harder for automobiles to fulfil that need.” Autonomous vehicles are necessary and inevitable, he concluded, but “are they gonna be fun? Absolutely not.”