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Will the Robo-Driver Save Detroit?

As of March 1, Nevada became the first state in the nation where it is legal for driverless cars to take to the roads, provided they identify themselves with red license plates. In addition, there are a growing number of influential states – including California and Florida – that are now pushing for legislation that would make it possible for their citizens to operate these “autonomous” vehicles. States see these driverless cars as a way to improve road safety and fuel efficiency, while the big U.S. automakers understandably see them as a way to sell cars with a technology premium. As the concept of the driverless car increasingly becomes a reality across the nation, will the robo-driver end up saving Detroit?

The case for the robo-driver is a strong one. Based on extensive testing that dates back to DARPA’s original experiments in the desert back in 2005 and Google’s autonomous car initiative, driverless cars offer the prospect of better safety records and fewer casualties than their human-operated counterparts. Not only can they optimize traffic patterns and avoid accidents with sophisticated computers and geo-location functionality, they can establish V2V (vehicle-to-vehicle) contact with other cars on the road. For drivers, they offer a respite from the long, boring commute of time stuck in traffic and the prospect of better fuel efficiency during actual driving time. In an increasingly urban world where traffic congestion is the bête noir of urban planners, the idea of autonomous cars zipping around in perfectly-orchestrated mechanical rhythms is no longer solely the realm of science fiction.

Best of all, according to engineers, all the technology is already in place. The driverless is not a “what if” technology – it’s a “when” technology. The new robo-cars are stuffed chock-full of sophisticated technology equipment – including high-resolution omni-directional cameras, scanning lasers for 3D views, street-view image databases, location-based technologies and optional integration with voice control technologies. These smart cars, when integrated into a computerized automotive network, represent a powerful hive mind of silicon brains communicating with each other in real-time, working to eliminate congestion and simultaneously reducing the impact of vehicles on the environment.

The legal hurdles have been cleared. The technological hurdles have been cleared. So what’s not to like?

The biggest problem facing automakers in Detroit is the sheer difficulty of changing consumer mindsets. Companies like Ford need to convince consumers that they are paying a premium for “personal mobility networks” rather than metal-and-rubber automobiles. Just as in the tech world, the hardest thing to change is consumer behaviors. Think about it: to get people to adopt your app or your website or your tool, you have to convince people to change the way they spend their time. For tens of millions of American drivers who love to get their kicks on Route 66, this means turning over the entire car-driving experience to a robo-driver.

To overcome this reticence on the part of the auto consumer, companies like Ford are launching all-out blitzes to make the robo-driver concept a part of every car experience. They are building in driverless technology to every car model, from the premium-end to the low-end, to expose consumers to what they’re potentially missing. At the 2012 Mobile World Conference in Barcelona, Ford made a splash as the first-ever automotive company to present at an event intended for mobile companies. CEO Bill Ford unveiled a “Blueprint for Mobility,” in which the autonomous car becomes simply another networked object in our complex digital economy and automakers become partners with technology companies in building smart transportation networks.

If these efforts pay off for companies like Ford, the rewards for Detroit’s automakers could be tremendous. The market for driverless cars is easily a global market, especially if you consider the state of traffic congestion in many cities around the world and the need for smart transportation alternatives. If America isn’t going to grab this opportunity, other nations will. Consider that researchers in Berlin are already developing a robo-driver program of their own for the vaunted German automotive industry. If American automakers can stay one step ahead of their foreign competitors with their own versions of a Blueprint for Mobility, the chances are good that the Robo-Driver might just end up saving Detroit — just like the RoboCop ended up saving Detroit.

image: The Car Without the Driver on Highway / Shutterstock


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