There is not one day without news on the front of autonomous driving. But things appear now to be clearer with 2 schools of thought. The two giant companies Toyota and Google, leading their relative businesses, are representative of those 2 schools.
From Toyota’s and most carmakers’ point of view, autonomous car will come step by step. The car business model will remain what it is for the foreseeable future. Driving assistance systems will spread and make car always safer. Even Tesla that wants to appear as a disruptor is on the same line. The Palo Alto manufacturer questions the traditional dealer-based distribution, proposes a new technical architecture and upgrades its models like a PC or a smartphone bust keeps the business model of car ownership. At Tokyo motor show, Akio Toyoda expressed concern about Tesla going too fast and the risk of an accident striking public opinion and eventually jeopardizing all future improvements in this domain. He is also moving his eponym company in the direction of more “driving pleasure”. Toyota, known for its leadership in quality, is aiming at a car “that is never responsible for a collision”. This is why Toyota speaks of 2025 or beyond for driverless cars.
On the other hand, Google aims at disrupting the mobility model based on ownership. Having made the analysis that traffic accidents, mostly due to human failures, kill more than one million people every single year, it intends to introduce driverless cars that reduces instantly the number of casualties. It does not believe in the step-by-step approach. As Chris Urmson in charge of the Google car explained during a TED speech* in March 2015, there is no such a thing as half autonomous car. Google cars have logged 147 000 miles in autonomous mode in the last 3 months only. They noticed that people tend to lack concentration when they start trusting the car. Hisashi Taniguchi, founder of ZMP a Japanese start-up targeting at introducing “taxi-robots” before 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo says the same thing when he claims that it is easier to deliver fully unmanned autonomous car than “level 3” cars where the responsibility in case of accidents would be unclear.
Both Taniguchi and Toyoda met on the 5th of November with Shinzo Abe, Japan prime minister and defended different point of views**. I attended a conference yesterday 6th of November where Taniguchi explained that Akio Toyoda pleaded that fully autonomous cars should not coexist on the same roads as man-driven cars. Reversely, Taniguchi explained how unmanned cars were the only solution and that speed of implementation was key.
Both positions are understandable. On one hand, car manufacturers have a great know-how and argue that cars are not standard objects. A bug in a car can make more damage than in a smartphone. And the time of democratization of new technologies in the auto industry is in years if not decades not months. On the other hand, new entrants defend that future mobility will be disruptive to be safe and sustainable. In the later category is of course Google, but also Apple, Uber or ZMP.
There are of course regulatory issues as the 1949 Geneva Convention on road traffic stipulates that all vehicles must have a driver. It was amended in 1968 in Vienna but only 70 countries signed it. China signed neither of them and has therefore more freedom to adapt its own regulation.
According to Taniguchi, Abe indicated on Thursday that Japan would allow unmanned taxis in Tokyo in 2020. Japan will also open its legislation in regions where the aging and decrease of the population will not allow keeping public transportation infrastructure. But vehicles without steering wheels and pedals will not be allowed.
Things have accelerated in an incredible manner in the last couple of years.
The road to new mobility is uncertain but all agree that the new environment will be dramatically different.
The question is whether the two schools of thoughts are irreconcilable. It is not sure. A year ago, in a conference I attended, Kodera, EVP of Toyota said that his company did not believe in autonomous drive. 2 months ago Toyota announced a 5 year 50 million dollar research project in AI and transformed it yesterday into a 1 billion-company establishment and hired at its president Gill Pratt ex MIT researcher. This is an unusual move for a company known for its preference to develop things in-house. Not to leave it to Uber, a consortium made of the German three premium brands decided to acquire Here, the leading map company from Nokia. Google recently hired John Krafcik a car veteran to head its future automotive business. Even though they consider that they can do without most of what had constituted until now the entry barrier of the auto industry (internal combustion technologies, high speed dynamic, passive safety), companies such as Google cannot ignore that the car industry has accumulated 100 years of know-how and fixes. Facing reality, both sectors have to recognize that they have to learn from the other.