GM exec: Driving is dead
The day of riding in a car that drives itself down a Smart Highway is rapidly approaching.
(FORTUNE Magazine) - Bob Lutz has held top jobs at Ford and Chrysler. Currently he is vice chairman of General Motors. This interview originally ran in the June 14, 2004 issue of FORTUNE.
Recently I sat down with the editors of FORTUNE for a chat, and a question they asked was, "Are we anywhere near the day you can climb into a car on Long Island, program it to take you to your niece's house in Chicago, hit enter and execute, and after the first 100 yards, once you hit a thoroughfare, the car takes over automatically and you just sit back and enjoy the ride?"
It is a question I dread. But I had to answer truthfully: "Absolutely. We are without a doubt near that day."
You could hear a pin drop in the room. Here was a self-affirmed car guy telling a roomful of journalists, with a straight but not altogether unpained face, that sooner rather than later we'll be able to take the driver right out of the driving equation.
But look, we're already doing it with airplanes.
Northrop Grumman's Global Hawk takes off at an air base in the U.S., climbs to 50,000 feet, flies to Australia, makes an approach and lands at an Australian air base, taxis up to the ramp, where there is a grandstand filled with military officials, and shuts itself off - with no human pilot.
Is the road environment more complicated than the sky at 50,000 feet? You bet. When we drive, we have only two dimensions of freedom, rather than three, and there are a lot more vehicles on the roadways than airplanes in the sky. But this is definitely coming.
Progress here is being driven by the exponential growth of computing power and the dramatic decline in the cost of data storage. Those factors are crucial because cost is a critical issue for vehicles. We've got to be able to develop systems that are "fail safe" at an affordable price.
The technology is here
The necessary technology is already here. We have radar technology that can be tied to cruise control and brakes, which automatically adjusts your speed based on following distance and pre-programmed settings. It's still a little bit raw, but it does work great. The technology can allow cars and trucks to follow each other in very closely spaced caravans.
Also, suppliers are developing side-vision-based lane-departure warning systems that read the edge of the road and the white lines. And the next-generation global positioning satellite (GPS) system is going to get you down from accuracy in yards to accuracy in inches.
All the technology combined will allow us to implement so-called Smart Highway systems, without having to do what we once feared would be necessary, which is to tear up every highway in order to bury wires under the pavement. With the next-generation GPS system, we won't have to change the road infrastructure one iota.
GPS can also coordinate speed with location. Let's say you're in a state with a 75-mph limit and you cross into a state with a 65-mph limit. GPS knows that and can adjust your speed accordingly. It will be able to read and pinpoint on-ramps and turnoffs, based on software programmed into the car's receiver and on the accurate position reading.
With radar-based automatic distance-sensing systems, imaging and lane-adherence technology, and the GPS system, we basically have the enablers to do fully autonomous driving.
It's not out of the question to imagine that someday soon you'll be able to start the car, punch in the appropriate settings, then swivel the front seats around and play cards and eat lunch as if you're riding on a train. All in perfect comfort and safety, all the way to that niece's place in Chicago.
Of course, as a driving enthusiast, I think all that is something of a disgrace. But it's a necessary disgrace. It will help alleviate a lot of traffic congestion and prevent a lot of accidents, assuming the system doesn't break down for any reason. And it's an idea whose time has just about come.
If pressed to estimate just how far away that time is, I'd say a working system is ten years out, implementation maybe 20 years.