President Donald Trump received a tour of the American Center for Mobility this week. He did not, however, discuss the federal funding of the Michigan-based autonomous testing and development facility. Instead, the site was used as a location for the president to discuss regulatory policies and meet with automotive executives. Little was said on the subject of self-driving cars.
Still, automakers routinely remind us that autonomous vehicles are right around the corner. Ford says it can have autonomous cars rolling out by 2021, Audi and Nissan have said 2020, and Volkswagen has claimed it’ll be ready for self-driving models in 2019. Tesla — which has been pioneering the technology longer than most — has stated it has the hardware necessary in its current production vehicles and would have a bulletproof system installed in 2018, anticipating regulatory approval in 2021. However, suppliers are predicting much less optimistic timelines for self-driving cars — and the dates given vary wildly.
Mobileye, which was recently purchased by Intel for a massive $15 billion, is one of very few suppliers anywhere near most carmakers’ deadlines. It and Delphi Automotive both plan to provide an off-the-shelf self-driving system by 2019, but it would only be SAE level 4 — a level some manufacturers say they would skip due to minor safety concerns. Many more, including Ford, have said they would also avoid level 3 for the mass-market.
One of Mobileye’s biggest competitors, Nvidia, has said that anything before 2025 is unrealistic. And that year, decided by company co-founder Jen-Hsun Huang, is only possible thanks to automakers accelerating the development of autonomous technology over the last few years. “Because of deep learning, because of AI computing, we’ve really supercharged our roadmap to autonomous vehicles,” he said in a keynote speech to the Bosch Connected World conference in Berlin.
According to Reuters, the company hosting the conference estimates it will take as much as six years longer to reach to the final stage of autonomous vehicle development. Bosch even declined to officially forecast when a totally autonomous car might become publicly available.
Apparently, there are too many gray areas for anyone to say definitively. Many of the dates set by automakers are misleading when you parse out the language used to describe what they mean by “autonomous.” The vast majority of companies will actually only have SAE level 3 capabilities — meaning the car could navigate on the expressway but not in cities and would still require the driver to be prepared to take over at a moments’ notice. Others, like Tesla, say they’re on the cusp of level 5 and won’t need drivers to intervene beyond setting a destination into the computer.
Technology analyst Richard Windsor wrote this week that he remains dubious of any automakers having genuinely autonomous vehicles by 2020, mainly because the liability issue is unresolved. “This is good news for the automotive industry which is notoriously slow to adapt to and implement new technology as it will have more time to defend its position against the new entrants,” he wrote.
This brings us back around the presidential visit. Regardless of how how quickly manufacturers and suppliers can bring the technology to the table, the government is the final piece of the puzzle. These cars will need to be regulated and evaluated before making their way to consumer garages. John Maddox, president and CEO of the American Center for Mobility, was privy to Trump’s discussion with automotive executives but didn’t hear word one about his own project.
Maddox said in an interview with Crain’s Detroit Business that the president was notified of the planned $80 million site’s development but the two did not discuss any funding, despite the facility needing another $60 million to be completed. “Today was not the right time to talk about funding,” Maddox said. “We were able to talk about what we’re doing here in broad terms and about how our automotive needs to stay competitive and to do that we need to build facilities like this … and others.”
[Image: Ford Motor Company]