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The biggest advances in cars haven’t been in autonomous features

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The Globe and Mail


Thursday, Mar. 17, 2016

Nearly every new model year brings announcements of breakthrough technologies and promises that sooner than we think, cars will be completely transformed.

After 46 years of hearing those promises, auto industry consultant Dennis DesRosiers says he’s become “a little bit cynical” about the rise of the Next Big Thing.

“The only group of people who know how to spin something better than the auto sector are politicians,” Desrosiers says. “When hybrids first came out, they said in 15 years they’d have the market share in Canada – well, last year it was less than one per cent.”

So, promises aside, what have really been the biggest advances in automotive technology?

“It’s not the sexiest, but I’d say the biggest advances have been in safety – whether that’s been the introduction of seat belts in the ’60s, anti-lock brakes, air bags or electronic stability control,” says Richard Wallace, director of transportation systems analysis with the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich. “There’s a lot of talk now about advanced driver assistance systems like auto-braking, but it’ll be a long time before they can catch up to the lives saved by just those four things.”

According to the U.S. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, in 2014, there were 1.08 crash deaths per 100 million miles (161 million km) travelled. That’s more than three times lower than the all-time high of 3.36 in 1980.

As for the new accident avoidance systems, there’s not enough data yet to show how many lives they’re saving, Wallace says.

“It will take a few year to demonstrate in the crash data whether they’ve actually been effective,” he says.

A lot of technological innovation, like the move to make vehicles safer, was spurred by regulations, DesRosiers says.

“In the ’60s, Ralph Nader wrote Unsafe at Any Speed and that was the beginning of the move to regulate from a safety perspective,” DesRosiers says.

Safety’s not the only change related to social policy, DesRosiers says.

“We have eliminated 99.7 per cent of the pollution from tailpipes – now it doesn’t matter whether you buy a Hummer or a Smart Car, none of them pollute any more,” he says. “Now were working on greenhouse gases.”

DesRosiers says the biggest changes have less to do with specific inventions and more about larger trends – cars are safer, they don’t pollute, they’re built better and they last longer. In other words, they don’t make them like they used to.

“Today each vehicle is 25 per cent more fuel-efficient than the same vehicle 10 years ago but it’s got more torque, more horsepower, better handling and it will be on the road for at least 400,000 km,” he says. “That’s one of the true marvels.”

Why are they building better cars? The move was driven by competition from Japanese manufacturers in the 1980s, DesRosiers says.

“The industry has spent trillions focusing on quality, quality, quality,” DesRosiers says. “The trigger was the Japanese came in and said ‘we don’t believe in planned obsolescence.’”

Does that mean cars will keep getting better-made and will last longer?

“I think the low-hanging fruit has been picked – we may be near the limit,” DesRosiers says. “Where we do need improvement is in the smallest vehicles in the marketplace.”

So what are the biggest technological changes ahead? Going by the current round of concept cars – like BMW’s Vision Next 100, which converts to a self-driving living room on wheels when you need it to – will we all be heading to work in driverless, connected, electric cars in 2026?

“There’s a trend toward increasing levels of automation and increasing levels of electrification, but we’re not there yet,” Wallace says. “And there’s the unknown element of how consumers are going to react to all this – some have predicted people will run out and trade in their cars for this new tech and I’m not sure they will.”

Wallace says “at least some mild hybridization like start-stop [which cuts the engine when the car’s not moving]” will be the only way to meet strict new vehicle fuel-efficiency standards, which will require an average of 54.5 mpg, or 4.4 litres/100 km, by 2025.

But we probably won’t all be switching completely to plug-ins and hybrids any time soon – if at all.

“You get too low fuel prices and sales are hurting,” Wallace says.

But, stricter standards for greenhouse gases will likely mean the death of diesel, Wallace says.

DesRosiers expects internal combustion engines to become more fuel efficient.

“I don’t think these other technologies, like hybrids and plug-ins will be able to compete,” DesRosiers says.

And self-driving cars? Even though the technology is being tested – and hyped – now, DesRosiers thinks we’re at least two or three decades away from getting them to the mass market. “There’s a good chance we’ll never have them,” he says. “There are serious issues that need to be addressed.”

For example, self-driving cars will be programmed not to break the law – so they’ll stick to 100 km/h on the highway, which consumers might not like, DesRosiers says. And, self-driving cars will have to interact with regular cars – and pedestrians.

“As a society, we’re programmed to put ourselves in harm’s way and run into the ditch instead of hitting a pedestrian,” Desrosiers says. “We’ll need (Artificial Intelligence) that will make these moral decisions – if there’s a school bus and kids on the road, do you hit the bus or do you hit the kids? Who do you kill?”

Still, as the technology improves, we’ll see “radical” safety benefits, DesRosiers says.

“We might not have driverless vehicles, but sensor technology will make vehicles much safer than they are today,” he says. “What we’re hearing right now is the spin and the excitement – everybody is getting on board and rightfully so.”

It takes decades for new advances to be widely adopted, especially because the automotive industry is averse to risk, DesRosiers says. It doesn’t want to roll out new technologies that consumers might not buy, or that might not work and lead to massive recalls.

“I’ll give you a stupid example: the third brake light. It involves running a single wire from the tail lights,” he says. “It took 15 years for the industry to make that standard equipment.”

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