Musings on the Motoring World

Our Autonomous Future Part 1: The Inevitable Transition

Industry veteran and serial straight-talker Bob Lutz stirred the hornet’s nest recently by declaring that the automotive industry is on its last legs, 20 years to be exact before the autonomous revolution would render all human-operated cars, buses, and lorries, redundant.

The outspoken businessman envisioned a future where driverless faceless electric pods zipping around city centres picking up passengers and dropping them off at their destination with all transactions and interactions being done wirelessly and instantaneously.

It is the veritable utopia futurists has been talking of for decades and Lutz believed that many will see it within their lifetime. The only caveat in his prediction is that traditional car ownership would ultimately evaporate along with the vast car industry that supports it as the main players of transportation will be today’s transport disruptors such as Uber and Google who are busily developing autonomous technology. Non-autonomous modes of transport would be banned, the vast majority destined for the scrap.

Predictably, the audience of the outlets who reported on his prognosis – car enthusiasts sites in particular – were livid.

The reaction was expected, and many thought that the headstrong former chief was just drumming up some publicity to make himself seem relevant to the industry again, though it is hard not to ignore his opinion considering where he is coming from.

Lutz has had a stunning 47-year career in the automotive industry where he held senior executive positions in BMW, Ford, Chrysler, and General Motors when it was still the largest car company in the world. And though he has retired from his place of prominence in General Motors, he hasn’t left the automotive industry either and still runs a small automotive firm called VLF Automotive.

You can’t dismiss him as just another faceless bean counting corporate luddite who is only excited about expanding profit margins and SUV ranges. He was responsible for the development of the Dodge Viper at Chrysler, brought the third-generation Holden Monaro into the United States as the Pontiac GTO, revived the Chevrolet Camaro into a modern icon, and was responsible for setting Cadillac back on course to becoming the preeminent American luxury brand.  Lutz not only knows the business like few others, he is also a proper petrolhead.

Personally I felt that his statements were a little misconstrued as outside the well-developed nations of North America, Western Europe, East Asia, and Australia and New Zealand, autonomous vehicles wouldn’t be able to cope with navigating the chaos of Mumbai nor would logistics providers want to risk their sophisticated machinery being vandalised on the streets of Rio de Janeiro. Ironically these two city centres are currently at the heart of some of the biggest (and growing) automotive markets in the world with manufacturers flocking there in droves.

The looking glass Lutz is gazing through is convexed by his own experience as an executive overseeing mature and saturated markets with well-developed infrastructure and systems of governance. Nothing more than a citizen of a first-world nation looking through the narrow viewpoints of a developed society and painting the world in overly broad strokes. General Motors’ failure in the early 2000s to make a significant impact in developing markets outside North America is proof of that.

Even if what Lutz says were to come to bear in the markets that he is familiar with, these developing markets outside his scope would easily sustain the current business model for years, if not decades to come.

Still, we cannot deny the ability for autonomous technology to exponentially improve itself, and when the day comes that autonomous transportation is finally able to overcome the hurdles of poor infrastructure, or such societies would eventually right themselves, it is unlikely that these developing nations will remain as guardians of a (car) culture that isn’t their own, but would easily capitulate into adopting the coming autonomous revolution. Maybe not in a time frame that is as immediate as its developed neighbours, maybe not within the next two decades, but sooner or later the transition will inevitably happen.

In my thoughts on building a case to debunk Lutz’s claim, I reached what one might call an epiphany. The more I observed how the world is changing, and more importantly, how we got here, the more I began to subscribe to his version of the automotive endgame. I realised that the path towards the dominance of autonomous cars isn’t being built right now by scientists and legislators, it has already been laid by unintentional changes in social, economic, and political forces in the world that will steer us towards it whether we like it or not.

To see the beginning of the new epoch we must first delve into the end of the old, the end of a 6000-year-old era, the end of the age of the horse.

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This is the first part of the four-part series titled Our Autonomous Future. Read on with Part 2, Part 3, and Epilogue.

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