In a rare tribute from one of the legacy auto makers, Richard Holman, head of the foresight and trends unit at General Motors, told an audience in Detroit this week Tesla and Google have cut years off the time when autonomous cars will be available. His remarks also throw a spotlight on the cultural differences between mainstream car companies like GM and tech companies like Tesla and Google.
Holman has been working at GM for 30 years, so he knows a bit about how management works at The General. He said he and his colleagues once thought self driving cars would become available in 2035 or so. But thanks to the two Silicon Valley companies “pushing the envelope,” he now seems that happening 15 years earlier.
Tesla watchers are reasonably certain it will be even sooner than that. Tesla has just added a new three lens camera to the front of its updated Model S. There is every reason to believe it will be included in the upcoming Model 3 as well. The extra camera is expected to greatly improve the ability of Tesla’s Autopilot system to accurately detect objects in the world around it, especially above and below the centerline of the front bumper — and large trucks.
Holman acknowledged that tech companies like Tesla and Google have forced traditional car companies to rethink how they view innovation. He says they tend to be more “cautious” and concerned about “making a mistake.” On that point, he is exactly correct. Elon Musk has said all along that he intends to disrupt the automotive industry. If that means awakening it from its long winter’s nap, he is doing precisely that.
Whether or not Tesla ends up selling 200,000 cars by the end of next year, Musk and Tesla have shaken up the thinking inside automotive boardrooms from Detroit to Stuttgart. That is the reason that The Drive just named Musk as the most influential person in the industry. The question on some people’s mind is what happens now that Musk has awakened the sleeping giant. The legacy car companies still know a thing or two about designing, building, and marketing automobiles. Now that they have been roused from their torpor, they might actually find an answer to the challenge from Tesla.
GM has recently invested a half billion dollars in Lyft, a ride hailing service similar to Uber. It is planning to start production of its own battery electric car, the Chevy Bolt, later this year. The Bolt may become an autonomous driving vehicle itself, thanks to the technical prowess of Cruise, a San Francisco start-up based in San Francisco that specializes in self driving technology. GM has recently complete a purchase of Cruise and is talking about using autonomous enabled Bolts as taxis in one or more US cities.
GM president Dan Ammann credits Cruise for its “deep software talent and rapid development capability to further accelerate GM’s development of autonomous vehicle technology . Fully autonomous vehicles can bring our customers enormous benefits in terms of greater convenience, lower cost, and improved safety for their daily mobility needs,” he says.
GM is not the only car company to sing the praises of Tesla Motors these days. Recently, Audi’s director of battery electric cars told a conference in Germany that Tesla “has done everything right,” especially when it comes to building a network of Supercharger locations that allow its customers to drive long distances without worrying about running out of battery power.
It’s nice to see the traditional companies recognizing the impact Tesla and, to a lesser extent, Google have had on their industry. Now the question is, what are they going to do about it?