'Look ma, no hands' on the car steering wheel still some way off

Reuters

By Ben Klayman

DETROIT, Oct 10 (Reuters) - When General Motors Co Vice Chairman Steve Girsky slid into a Cadillac SRX luxurycrossover vehicle specially equipped to drive itself, hisreaction echoed that of many consumers as more self-drivingtechnologies are rolled out.

"It's a little unsettling at first when you take your handsoff the wheel and then it's one of these 'Oh wow' moments,"Girsky said in a Sept. 27 interview about the vehicle he testdrove over a year ago.

While consumers may envision a George Jetson-like futurewhere cars steer themselves as "drivers" read iPads, thatreality is still years away for mass production cars.

What most automakers and suppliers see near term is carsequipped with "driver assistance" features that help in unsafeconditions, prevent accidents and take a lot of the stress outof driving.

These features will be stepping stones towards a fully-driverless car.

One of the first situations mass-production cars can handlewithout a driver is bumper-to-bumper traffic. Some cars arealready equipped to steer themselves into a parking space.Others warn drivers if they are over the speed limit and brakethe vehicle automatically to avoid a collision.

Companies are spending hundreds of millions of dollars tokeep up with consumers' demand for such technology. Get it rightand car buyers will pay thousands of dollars for the addedfeatures, analysts said.

"If automakers build it and can explain the valueproposition, consumers will come," said Gary Silberg, nationalauto industry leader for consulting firm KPMG, which released astudy Thursday about consumer attitudes toward self-drivingcars.

KPMG found most Americans surveyed were receptive to theidea of a driverless car. The results raised red flags for theauto industry as consumers ranked Google, which has aself-driving car program, and Apple as brands they wouldtrust most for such vehicles.

While that raises the question whether tech companies couldbecome industry rivals, Girsky and other executives saidautomakers were just as likely to partner with tech companies ascompete with them.

The KPMG report was in line with global studies that show agrowing number of people are receptive to the idea ofself-driving cars.

Earlier this year, Cisco Systems, the world'slargest network equipment maker, released research showing 57percent of global consumers would ride in a car entirelycontrolled by technology. Cisco is working with German autosupplier Continental AG to develop connected vehicletechnology.

In North America, U.S. technology research firm ABI Researchsees the first fully driverless vehicles appearing at thebeginning of the next decade and reaching more than 10 millionshipping annually in 2032.

MOVING FAST

"It's moving faster than even I imagined," said Larry Burns,GM's former research chief and an advisor to Google, whichexpects to release its driverless technology in the next fiveyears. "Every board of every major auto company needs to beasking their leadership, 'What are you doing about this wholephenomenon?'"

Among the latest automakers to make predictions were NissanMotor Co and Mercedes parent Daimler AG, whichboth said they plan to start selling self-driving cars by 2020.

Elon Musk, electric carmaker Tesla Motors Inc's billionaire chief executive, sees autonomous cars handling 90percent of the driving within three years. However, he said theidea of building a car that controls itself under allcircumstances was too ambitious. [ID: nL2N0HE00S]

GM believes semi-autonomous cars will be available laterthis decade, but fully self-driving cars are much further out.In his test drive, Vice Chairman Girsky got a taste of a featuredubbed "Super Cruise" that is capable of fully automaticsteering, braking and speed control in certain highway driving.

KPMG, which previously forecast self-driving cars hittingdealers in 2019 with a more developed infrastructure in 2025,found consumer interest jumped significantly if the car includedthe ability to turn that technology on or off, and it meantsignificantly lower commute times due to dedicated highwaylanes. Those surveyed were willing to pay a premium of about 15percent, or almost $4,000 on a $25,000 vehicle equipped withsuch technology.

Some executives say automakers are held to a higher standardfor their technology than other companies.

"The consumer will accept that Siri on the iPhone works halfthe time, but if you put something in the car they want it towork 100 percent of the time," said Delphi Automotive Chief Technology Officer Jeff Owens. "That is the dichotomywe're facing."

With liability issues to iron out - no automaker wants to beblamed for a driverless car accident - auto executives said nocar in the near term will be fully self driving. In other words,the consumer will be sitting in the driver seat, ready to takeover.

"We don't want people to think that it's OK to drink anddrive, or read papers while driving," Toru Futami, Nissan'sengineering director of advanced technology and research saidlast week. "Ultimately, the responsibility lies with thedriver."

Another finding in the KPMG study should scare autoexecutives: engines, transmissions and styling ranked at thebottom of the list of things that most mattered in aself-driving car.

With car performance and quality becoming almost uniformacross auto brands, driver assistance technology has become afactor that can make one vehicle stand out from another.

As this moves forward, and cars become loaded with driverassistance technology, it remains to be seen whether outsideplayers like Google and Apple could directly compete withautomakers on driverless cars.

Ford Motor Co Chairman Bill Ford worries about theimpact on car manufacturers if consumers love the technology inthe vehicles more than the vehicles themselves.

"As we've added more and more convenience and cool stuff incars, we've taken away their ability to love the car," he saidin June 2012. "There's no turning back the clock and that'swhere we're going and that's where we should be going, but it'sone aspect that I actually feel a little sorry about."

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