You get a call one night that your wife fell asleep at the wheel. It’s a nightmare scenario but thankfully, she’s fine. As her Volvo veered off the road, its autonomous safety features applied the brakes, tightened her seatbelts, deployed the air bags and called for help.
This isn’t the future. This is today.
Serial Volvo-owner Whitney Tilson would typically drive a vehicle for 10 years or so before trading it in. But he heard that the safety features in current models were vastly superior to his existing car, so in 2017 he upgraded. “You need a car to protect you if some other idiot is taking video or talking on the phone,” he tells GenPop. He credits the features of his new car with keeping his wife safe enough to walk away from the crash unharmed.
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The New York International Auto Show demonstrated something that is often lost in the discussion of the future of self-driving cars. Namely, that an array of semi-autonomous safety features already exist in the models being launched. Many can already park themselves or maintain a certain distance from the car in front of you in traffic. They can brake in an emergency, or keep you in your lane or detect pedestrians or cars in blind spots or cross-traffic. Or they can do all of the above. Increasingly, these features are becoming standard or available, even on non-luxury models. The automakers aren’t waiting for full autonomy, they’re layering in these features of safety and convenience now. Yet only 38% of Americans feel that autonomous vehicles will make driving safer, according to an Ipsos study.
Dealing the present, showing the future
This illustrates how auto shows are still focused on active driving with selective assists. Despite all the headlines (good and bad) about self-driving cars, dealership groups produce auto shows. They offer glimpses of the future, like some super-cool looking electric concepts. But the spotlight today must remain on vehicles for customers to drive themselves on the showroom floor today to meet monthly sales quotas.
Today’s car buyers are still all about SUVs and light trucks as evidenced by the new model releases during the show. With fuel prices still relatively low, the SUV continues to be a top choice for the American driver. Traditional nameplates like Toyota and Lincoln unveiled multiple new SUV models of various sizes and configurations as did surprising entrants like Maserati. Volkswagen drew a lot of interest with a concept pickup truck aimed, it seems, at an outdoorsy Millennial audience. Hinrich Woebcken, North American CEO for Volkswagen, boasted about the size of the Atlas Tanoak, “It’s huge!” Klaus Bischoff, head of design for Volkswagen, described it as “The most American Volkswagen ever.” The models who drove it onto the display stage perhaps representing all Americans in their flannel and knit hats–paused to take a group selfie with the truck before exiting.
Outside on special test-tracks, auto show visitors got to ride in a Jeep down a flight of stairs. Others rode in a Toyota Camry as a stunt-driver showed off its acceleration, braking and 360-degree spinning capabilities. By contrast, the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas earlier in the year, focused more on in-car technology, and demonstrations of self-parking or self-braking skills.
The future is electric
At the auto show, the future was in evidence, but off to the sides. Right before the NYIAS, Waymo and Jaguar announced a partnership to add 20,000 Jaguar I-Pace vehicles to Waymo’s fleet. It’s a huge step, but the vehicle itself was parked off in a dark corner of the Jaguar Land Rover display.
Nissan displayed its Nissan Intelligent Mobility cars with ProPilot Assist. Ford also showed off a bus from its Chariot ride-sharing service and a self-driving Domino’s pizza delivery car it tested (with a safety driver) last year in Ann Arbor, Michigan. A spokesperson on the floor said that people who ordered a pie were able to opt-in for the test program. When the delivery car arrived customers were so excited they’d run outside without taking the time to put shoes on, even in winter. They even thanked the cars as they self-piloted away.
So while customers and media are curious about or looking forward to tomorrow’s self-driving future, for the moment, they are content to picture themselves in today’s new and still-manned model. When asked, “isn’t the point of owning something like a Jaguar that it’s a joy to drive yourself,” the floor personnel sheepishly admitted, “Well, yeah…”