Maybe Autonomous Vehicles Don't Have to Look Like Steaming Sacks of Garbage

Steph Willems
by Steph Willems

Thank God we don’t have to look at that Google self-driving car anymore. You know the one — shaped like an unhappy egg wearing a little hat? That one. The one that inspired visions of a future where life is so sterile and miserable that it wouldn’t be hard to imagine masses of people throwing themselves on the road in front of these pod-like commuting appliances.

Still, even as self-driving technology advances, we’re treated to concept vehicles that don’t exactly stir the soul. Some recent designs deserve kudos, but many still resemble motor pool rejects from A Clockwork Orange, terrifying gearheads and libertarians alike.

It doesn’t have to be that way, claims one automotive supplier. You can have your sexy car and still tell it to drive you around.

Magna International, the Canadian supplier of just about everything, is eager to field its autonomous driving suite — a bundle of ultrasonic sensors, lidar, radar, and associated computer system that can be affixed to ordinary vehicles without raising suspicions that the vehicle plans to take our freedom.

To prove how subtle the bundle can be, last fall the company placed the sensors on a decidedly brawny Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT.

Thanks to Jeep’s need to suck plenty of air, there’s no shortage of grille in which to hide a center-mounted, forward-facing radar. Four lidar sensors conceal themselves in special black trim strips Magna applied to all four corners of the vehicle, while another sensor lurks inconspicuously in the lower fascia. No rooftop sensor array, no dome, no little chapeau.

“I think one of the discussions that seems to be out there in society is, as we move towards these more autonomous (vehicles), will the character of the automobile go away? … People are not going to give up wanting their cars to look the way they look,” Larry Erickson, global director of Magna’s exteriors design group, told WardsAuto.

The Grand Cherokee, outfitted for Level 4 autonomous driving and appropriately named the MAX4, uses a matte black thermoplastic to cover the corner lidars, but it won’t always be that way, Erickson said.

“At this point lidar requires a different surface finish to project through, whereas the radar in the upper area (of the corner is) a little bit more flexible so it’s going through a painted surface,” Erickson explained, adding, “I think on just about any vehicle you can incorporate the sensors and not change what was the original (design) intent.”

Magna displayed the self-driving Jeep at the recent Eyes on Design event held near Detroit. The company hopes automakers take notice. Magna’s self-driving array is the hardware it wants the industry to buy when, and if, Level 4 driving becomes commonplace. Earlier this year, Magna invested $200 million into Lyft as part of a partnership that will see it develop self-driving systems for the ride-hailing company. Magna secured an equity stake out of the deal.

Just last month, Magna teamed with May Mobility to build the company’s electric autonomous shuttles, which it hopes to launch in the downtown cores of major U.S. cities.

[Images: Joe Ross/ Flickr ( CC BY-SA 2.0), Magna]

Steph Willems
Steph Willems

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  • Shortest Circuit Shortest Circuit on Jul 11, 2018

    Like Asimov's Sally... you only need a positronic brain that fits into the glovebox.

  • Bkojote Bkojote on Jul 11, 2018

    There are times when I think car culture projects its inner insecurities as snark and Steph (that's a girl's name btw) seems to embody it. It's like everything from autonomous cars to electrification questions his ability to pass on his genetic material. The Google Self Driving car was hardly my favorite design but I can appreciate anything that tries to be different rather than the typical 'mad fish face' we see on everything from a Hyundai Elantra to a Camry. I'll give it credit- it was offbeat and cute. Car guys seem to crab everything different is ugly (while rocking a janky Accord Coupe but that's ok because its spirit animal is the E36) but then bemoan the lack of something fun and fresh.

  • Varezhka I have still yet to see a Malibu on the road that didn't have a rental sticker. So yeah, GM probably lost money on every one they sold but kept it to boost their CAFE numbers.I'm personally happy that I no longer have to dread being "upgraded" to a Maxima or a Malibu anymore. And thankfully Altima is also on its way out.
  • Tassos Under incompetent, affirmative action hire Mary Barra, GM has been shooting itself in the foot on a daily basis.Whether the Malibu cancellation has been one of these shootings is NOT obvious at all.GM should be run as a PROFITABLE BUSINESS and NOT as an outfit that satisfies everybody and his mother in law's pet preferences.IF the Malibu was UNPROFITABLE, it SHOULD be canceled.More generally, if its SEGMENT is Unprofitable, and HALF the makers cancel their midsize sedans, not only will it lead to the SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST ones, but the survivors will obviously be more profitable if the LOSERS were kept being produced and the SMALL PIE of midsize sedans would yield slim pickings for every participant.SO NO, I APPROVE of the demise of the unprofitable Malibu, and hope Nissan does the same to the Altima, Hyundai with the SOnata, Mazda with the Mazda 6, and as many others as it takes to make the REMAINING players, like the Excellent, sporty Accord and the Bulletproof Reliable, cheap to maintain CAMRY, more profitable and affordable.
  • GregLocock Car companies can only really sell cars that people who are new car buyers will pay a profitable price for. As it turns out fewer and fewer new car buyers want sedans. Large sedans can be nice to drive, certainly, but the number of new car buyers (the only ones that matter in this discussion) are prepared to sacrifice steering and handling for more obvious things like passenger and cargo space, or even some attempt at off roading. We know US new car buyers don't really care about handling because they fell for FWD in large cars.
  • Slavuta Why is everybody sweating? Like sedans? - go buy one. Better - 2. Let CRV/RAV rust on the dealer lot. I have 3 sedans on the driveway. My neighbor - 2. Neighbors on each of our other side - 8 SUVs.
  • Theflyersfan With sedans, especially, I wonder how many of those sales are to rental fleets. With the exception of the Civic and Accord, there are still rows of sedans mixed in with the RAV4s at every airport rental lot. I doubt the breakdown in sales is publicly published, so who knows... GM isn't out of the sedan business - Cadillac exists and I can't believe I'm typing this but they are actually decent - and I think they are making a huge mistake, especially if there's an extended oil price hike (cough...Iran...cough) and people want smaller and hybrids. But if one is only tied to the quarterly shareholder reports and not trends and the big picture, bad decisions like this get made.