The 2017 Financial Times Future of the Car Summit, held last week in London, assembled a roster of high-profile speakers to discuss the forces reshaping the automotive sector. The future potential of autonomous vehicles (AVs), emerging shared mobility services and the changing prospects for car ownership loomed large over the agenda.
The event’s opening keynote was delivered by Ford EMEA chief executive Jim Farley, who said his company must transform from vehicle manufacturer to mobility provider. He said a key step was Ford’s acquisition last year of Chariot, a US-based ride-sharing service.
“Every Chariot takes 10 cars off the road,” he observed, adding that manufacturers must start to think beyond shifting metal. “Will the overall math mean less volume? I don’t know,” he admitted. “Vehicles will be much more highly utilised. Today, someone who does a lot of miles might use their car 10% of the time. But an autonomous vehicle used 100% of the time has a very different profile.”
Farley said Ford’s $1bn investment in artificial intelligence company Argo AI was a vital step towards future AVs and smart services, such as search provision for finding the best means of transport from place to place.
“The most important factor is partnership with cities,” Farley added. “The urban environment is where the transformation will be most apparent. Even if all cars go electric, there will still be huge congestion issues, so the answer lies in collaboration.”
While Farley emphasised that Ford must cater “for everyone, not just rich people,” other speakers noted that future mobility options are likely to remain divided along familiar lines.
“Mercedes will be a premium mobility service provider in the future, not just a premium car manufacturer,” observed Wilko Stark, head of strategy at Daimler. “It’s not just about the vehicle but the whole experience around it.”
Stark said that Level-5 AVs (able to operate in all circumstances without a driver) will bring “real disruption” to the automotive industry. “We are pushing this like hell, to be one of the first companies in autonomous driving,” he said. Daimler has established a joint venture with Bosch to develop AV technology and is also partnering with Uber, although Stark said this relationship would not stop the company providing its own mobility services.
Stark added that the biggest market for AVs would not be Europe or the US – he cited Morgan Stanley research predicting that by 2030, shared services will account for about a third of all miles travelled by car in China.
China is already outpacing the US in smartphone adoption and the scope of digital services, Stark added. “At Mercedes-Benz, we look at what is going on in China, especially when it comes to connectivity. We are not looking to the US and definitely not looking to Europe.”
Maarten Sierhuis, director of Nissan’s Silicon Valley Research Center, told delegates that new mobility services will have an enormous impact. “Driverless cars will change society,” he predicted. “We will create entirely new practices around new mobility services.”
However, Sierhuis said barriers ahead of AVs remain stubbornly high, both in cost and capability. Nissan has proposed a system that would use remote human operators to act like air traffic controllers, helping AVs to deal with situations beyond their programming.
Sierhuis said a key challenge would be to create efficient human-machine interface (HMI) designs for semi-autonomous cars. “If we have ‘eyes on’, we still need the driver to take over, but at that moment we have two drivers in the system – the human and the autonomous system – and they are kind of fighting each other for control. That is not an easy problem to solve. In some ways, taking the driver out of the vehicle is easier, because that HMI part falls away and it becomes a simpler problem.”
Johann Jungwirth, chief digital officer at the Volkswagen Group, said that technology will simplify car usage even before full autonomy arrives. “Why do we still have seven, eight steps before you start driving?” he asked. “I want to reduce this to zero. The doors should open automatically. Why is there still a light switch? Why is there a parking switch? Why is there a start-stop button in EVs? Why doesn’t the car just do all of this by itself?”
Jungwirth said the VW Group has developed a design and engineering approach called ‘human thinking’. “For me, human thinking is about putting the human in the centre,” he explained. “Is [the vehicle] emotional, does it touch people’s lives, does it bring society forward, does it solve people’s problems?”
Stefan Sielaff, design director at Bentley Motors, also focused on human factors in his presentation.
“The next generation, the digital natives, are obviously very important,” Sielaff noted. “These young human beings are growing up in a completely different environment with a completely different mindset. They will live in megacities, like almost 80% of the population within 30 years, and we have to face this fact.”
Sielaff said AVs guided by swarm technology would be vital in avoiding gridlock, but that consumer choice and the provision of premium services would still be essential. He recalled the fate of Eastern Bloc products after the fall of the Berlin Wall. “Trabant – doing red, yellow or blue cars – were dead one day after the opening of the wall,” he recalled. “Because humans always want to have more than bread and water, if they can afford it.”
Mike Flewitt, chief executive of McLaren Automotive, delivered the summit’s closing keynote, pointing out that his firm is in the entertainment rather than the transport business. “I don’t envisage full autonomy for McLaren,” he said. “Maybe it would be useful for cities or highways, but we’d return control to the driver when they reach the kind of roads where you’d want to drive yourself.”
McLaren is currently developing its first pure electric car, having already produced plug-in hybrids. “We want an EV McLaren that’s more exciting to drive than a P1,” he said. “The challenge is maintaining the attributes that communicate emotionally to our customers. We won’t bring an electric McLaren to market until we’ve cracked that challenge.”