Last week the Financial Times held its 2018 Future of the Car Summit in London, a two-day event assembling high profile speakers from automotive technology, business and policy.
Keynote speaker Jim Adler, managing director of Toyota AI Ventures, summed up the participants as “geeks, suits and wonks,” adding that this triumvirate must collaborate in ways rarely achieved in the past to gain a net positive result from tomorrow’s autonomous vehicles. “We’d better get ahead of the policy implications,” he argued. “With social media, it was serialised – first the geeks got it to work, then the suits figured out how to make money, and now wonks are tackling the policy implications. I think with cars, we’re going to need to do all three in parallel.”
The role of design in this process barely earned a mention, across two days of debate. As a result, the most important takeaway from the conference may be that designers need to contribute more loudly to such discussions.
By way of example, Karl Gray, global head of motor policies at Zurich Insurance Group, raised the issue of legal liability when using autonomous vehicles. “Will we get to the point where the person in the vehicle has no responsibility at all?” he asked. “There’s an argument that if you have a stop button in a car, you could be held liable if you don’t press it when you should, or press it when you shouldn’t.”
Interaction design might have a big impact on such questions, though these implications were not drawn out by the summit.
Volvo Cars president and chief executive Håkan Samuelsson also failed to address design in his 30-minute talk. “That was my mistake,” he admitted to CDN afterwards. “Design is probably the biggest factor in having made Volvo much more attractive. Ten years ago we’d ask consumers about their priorities and it would be fuel consumption or quality. Today the two top issues are exterior design and interior design.”
The summit addressed many issues debated at the recent Future of the Automobile Conference held in Los Angeles – from the rise of mobility providers to the future role of user data. Attempting to avoid repetition, here are some of the less typical topics aired at the London event:
Geography may alter the car industry more than technology
“The really big disruption isn’t technology, it’s where the markets are and where vehicles are produced,” argued David Ward, secretary general of safety body Global NCAP. “The doubling of the global vehicle fleet, forecast over the next 15 years, will overwhelmingly be with old-fashioned technologies,” he added, observing that even major brands sell vehicles in developing markets that they know are likely to be deadly in an impact.
He labelled this situation “as disturbing as Dieselgate”, noting that the UN general assembly recently called for global minimum safety standards.
Olivier Sappin, VP of transportation and mobility at Dassault Systémes, described a more optimistic outlook for emissions. “China and India will catch up fast,” he predicted. “In India, they took Euro VI and made Bharat VI. They are trying to achieve the same regulations in much less time and I think they’re going to succeed.”
Differences between markets will probably widen, not converge
Karl Iagnemma, cofounder and president of autonomous technology company nuTonomy, cautioned that self-driving technology is much less exportable than a ride-hailing app. “Depending on where you are in the world, the technical solution for autonomous driving is anywhere from slightly different to radically different,” he warned. “We’re likely to see regional winners rather than a single overall winner.”
Many developing countries may skip car ownership and move straight to mobility services, predicted Olaf Sakkers, a partner at investment firm Maniv Mobility. However, autonomy may not be part of the picture. “In developing countries, you have low rates of car ownership and a low cost of labour,” he observed, “So it’s much easier to go straight to [human-driven] mobility services.”
Meanwhile, Mike Hawes, chief executive of the UK’s SMMT trade body, challenged the urban myth that Western millennials aren’t interested in car ownership. “I live in the middle of nowhere and my kids were desperate for cars,” he said. “There’s a danger that we’ll focus the entire future of the automotive industry on an urban solution.”
The shift to service provision will upend today’s business models
As OEMs switch to comprehensive subscription models they move servicing from profit to cost, noted Volvo’s Samuelsson. “There is a risk today that we treat our customers like they’re buying a printer,” he said. “It’s very cheap until you buy the ink cartridges and then it’s very expensive. I think consumers really will appreciate, in the future, being treated more transparently.”
Olaf Sakkers added: “The carmaker’s business model has never considered utilisation,” he said. “Their job is to sell cars, so they don’t think at a system level. Companies like Uber, Lyft and Didi have a completely different business model where they sell a trip, and their incentive is to make the trip price lower. The way to do that is to reduce inefficiencies all across the system – whether that’s downtime or empty seats or the cost of the driver.”
Mobility services may include services that aren’t mobile
“In Beijing, in Shanghai and several cities in China now, we’ve opened NIO Houses,” said Padmasree Warrior, US chief executive of electric car start-up NIO. “It’s like an Apple Store on the first floor and Soho House on the second floor - a combination of retail space and membership club. It has childcare, it has cafés and event spaces. The idea is about convenience – where you can charge your car or get your battery swapped in five minutes.”
Views differ on the driverless car as a third space between work and home
“The car is a living space, so what do you do in your living room today? I think you have to apply that analogy,” said NIO’s Warrior. She added that habits will vary according to time of day: “On the way home I want to be quiet, because it’s the only time I get to be by myself.”
However, Seleta Reynolds, general manager at the Los Angeles Department of Transportation, was less optimistic about quiet spaces on the move. “If you wake up at 2am so you can go back to sleep in your vehicle as it sits in hours of otherwise soul-crushing traffic, and do the same on the way home, I’m not sure that’s a positive outcome,” she argued. “If we continue to allow unfettered use of personal cars we will drown in autonomous cars.”
Views also differ on the best role for OEMs
NIO’s Warrior outlined the common view that carmakers must become holistic service providers. “We focus on the entire experience: what happens before you get in the car, while you’re in the car, when you’re not in the car,” she said. “The ultimate vision for us is that the car is no longer a car: it’s a robot, a datacentre, a service, a living space, your digital companion.”
If OEMs shy away from this task, they risk becoming mere hardware providers to technology firms. “With the likes of Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, we’re already seeing companies disintermediating consumers from the actual vehicles they’re in,” observed Amar Varma, COO of software firm Autonomic.
Not everyone is convinced. “We are not interested in going into the taxi business,” said Volvo’s Samuelsson. “We have never thought about starting up a taxi company, so why should we do that now just because the driver is a robot? I think we should leave that business to Uber, Lyft and Waymo.”
Similarly, Samuelsson said Volvo won’t try to make profit from user data and will open up its cars to consumer software. “Consumers can download hundreds of apps and there will be new ones coming every month,” he said. “They will be much better than the ones we might have developed by ourselves.”
Autonomous vehicles will probably come with a user agreement button
Alongside the legal risks posed by an emergency stop button, Zurich’s Karl Gray cautioned that owners of autonomous car will probably be legally required to use the vehicles as intended, keep sensors clean and make sure the car is able to download software upgrades.
Volvo’s Samuelsson highlighted the risks of overselling the benefits of technology. “We must not give consumers some kind of false illusion that what we are selling today is anything close to an autopilot,” he warned. “That’s something we’ve learned, to tell drivers: ‘No, no, this is not an autopilot – you have to be ready to jump in’.”
NuTonomy’s Iagnemma agreed that ensuring better user understanding will be vital. “We need new ways of explaining complex, safety-critical technology to a public that’s not all that excited to learn about them,” he said.
LA’s Seleta Reynolds, meanwhile, argued for a wider rethink of responsibility. “I’d like to see laws incorporating human factors research,” she said. “The outcomes that emerge from designing wide, fast streets where you have people walking and people biking are not accidents – they are very predictable.”