Driverless cars

Talkin’ ’bout a revolution

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Source: Reuters [M]

It will save up to a million lives worldwide every year. And it will save millions more from being maimed, paralyzed or bereaved. What is “it”? It is the imminent revolution in mobility, as cars that we drive yield to cars that drive us. And for once in this PR-mad age of hype the word “revolution” is appropriate. The coming driverless cars, unlike us, never get distracted, drowsy or drunk. They will make transportation on wheels as safe as flying is today (and notwithstanding whatever phobias you may have, flying really is one of the safest things you can do).

This should make all of us, as human beings, rejoice with optimism. Moreover, the boon to humanity does not even end there, as Johann Jungwirth, formerly of Apple and now in charge of driverless cars for VW, told me the other day as part of a Handelsblatt future-gazing summit. (See excerpts below. Full interview coming on video soon.)

For billions of people — ie, almost all of us — driverless cars will improve life by saving that most precious resource: time. Instead of cursing at each other in traffic jams or circling unproductively in search of a parking spot, we will nap, watch movies, work, play, read, or converse as we are being driven. The blind, the wheelchair-bound, the old and infirm: they all will be able to live where they please without inconvenience.

These cars will also — like so many other things nowadays — be shared. Today an average car is used only about four percent of the time. During the other 96 percent, these hulking metal beasts clutter our streets and sidewalks. In future, it will take fewer cars to shuttle us, and after hours those smaller fleets will park themselves outside of town. Streetscapes and urban spaces will be cleared of cars to become … playgrounds, shops, parks or something else entirely. Just as people a century ago could not yet foresee suburbs, exurbs or Walmart (all of which depend on commuting by car), we cannot yet imagine the spaces we will inhabit in the coming decades.

These boons of the revolution are one reason why, as I first promised in July, we at Handelsblatt Global are deepening our coverage of the automotive industry and its tangential sectors — from mapping to artificial intelligence. So get in the habit of browsing our analysis, which draws on the combined intelligence of the automotive teams at our German sister publications Handelsblatt and WirtschaftsWoche. You’ll find it all on a new tab on our site and in our app, called — what else? — Mobility.

But there is another reason why we are going big on Mobility. It is that boons are invariably accompanied by banes. “The future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed,” as William Gibson, the science-fiction writer who coined the term “cyberspace”, famously remarked. If you go to parts of Arizona, driverless Waymo cars (a Google brand) are already zipping around merrily. China, Singapore or Abu Dhabi are among the other places that will be going boldly where no man has driven before. But Europe? And Germany? German voters and regulators are not known for nimbleness when faced with innovation. Why rejoice about lives saved when you can fret about the insurance liability in that one last accident that can’t be avoided?

Last but not least, there is Germany’s automotive industry, a mainstay of the economy and of Made in Germany. Many German component suppliers will hitch rides in the fast lane of this revolution. But Germany’s carmakers, already coughing through Dieselgate, will have some accelerating to do to avoid being taken over by upstarts from Silicon Valley or elsewhere.

I put it to VW’s Johann Jungwirth, or J.J. as he prefers, that VW, Daimler, BMW and their ilk remind me of IBM in the 1980s. At that time, “Big Blue” simply was computing. Then another revolution occurred, and value and power shifted from IBM to the “Intel inside”, and to the Microsoft software that ran the machines. In the 1990s, IBM almost perished, before eking out a new existence as a different firm in a different world. Are not driverless cars today what PCs were in the 1980s? Are Germany’s carmakers not IBM before the fall?

“I wouldn’t work for the Volkswagen group if I didn’t believe that we can do this and will do this,” Mr. Jungwirth replied. And I believe that he believes it. Nonetheless, this struggle by Germany’s signature industry to lead rather than to merely survive this epochal change will be dramatic. And now there is a stage to behold that drama: Handelsblatt Global – Mobility.

On the way to a Digital Summit on an Austrian summit in November 2017, Handelsblatt Global's Editor-in-Chief talked to Johann Jungwirth, Chief Digital Officer of VW and brainfather of its self-driving cars, about the coming revolution in mobility.

To contact the author: kluth@handelsblatt.com

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