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Driverless car gets its day

  • The image of cars in a showroom

This week marks the debut of Kumar Saha, Wheels’ newest columnist, who will explore the trends shaping the future of the automotive business.

Your automotive past: Brought to you by Henry Ford — thank you very much.

Your mobility future: (Perhaps) brought to you by Sebastian Thrun.

Never heard of this guy? Thrun is the German-born engineering whiz behind Google’s driverless car project, which began in earnest in 2009. Fitted onto Toyota Prius and Lexus RX models, the Internet-chomping goliath’s autonomous driving gadgetry has already helped its fleet of modified cars clock more than 400,000 miles of accident-free road time.

I am no stranger to snickers and rolling eyes when I drop the term “autonomous driving” — yes, even from industry insiders. But here’s the real doozy: California passed a law late last month legalizing driverless vehicles in the state, following similar legislation in Nevada and Florida. Not so incidentally, California Gov. Jerry Brown made the announcement at Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. in the presence of company co-founder Sergey Brin.

Automakers such as General Motors, Ford, Mercedes-Benz and Audi are already eyeing rollouts of autonomous or semi-autonomous vehicles between 2015 and 2020, but Google’s presence marks a sharp turn on the road. The Wall Street Journal reported last week that the search-engine folks have apparently dropped the previously flouted idea of manufacturing driverless cars of its own but will work closely with established carmakers to bring the technology into the mainstream.

Even without its own car assembly line and the more extreme case of autonomous driving technology, Google has firmly placed itself on the automotive map. Ford is already working with Google on predictive analytics which help cars learn driving patterns of vehicle owners and make, for instance, route recommendations that will help save both gas and time. Chinese car manufacturer SAIC Motor is now using an Android-powered infotainment platform in one of its flagship cars, the Economist reports.

Google’s not the only IT giant gone car crazy. The rise of connectivity in vehicles has placed the likes of Microsoft, Intel and Canada’s own QNX well inside the orbit of the automotive industry. While Ontario and Michigan shed automotive jobs, California’s Bay Area algorithm geeks are taking a big byte (pardon the pun!) out of the car business.

This change in the industry itself flows from other shifting global dynamics. In his upcoming book, , author Sarwant Singh, a senior partner at the global research firm Frost & Sullivan, outlines 10 gamechangers that are recalibrating the way we lead our lives and grow our businesses. Here are some of the mega trends that will turn the wheels of the automotive industry:


Our big cities are getting bigger. For instance, the GTA is already a certified megacity or region with its growing suburbs while others such as Calgary and Vancouver are well on their way. So what does the urban bloat imply? Not just greater congestion and need for more infrastructure, but also a need for greater mobility integration. GTA’s transit system-merging Presto program is a case in point but going forward, we are likely to see new modes of travel such as carsharing being part of a city’s door-to-door mobility initiatives. Similarly, stop-and-go traffic in urban areas, coupled with rising gas prices, will see the introduction of smaller engines by automakers and quicken the pace of alternative fuel cars.


Yes, electric vehicle sales to date cut a sorry figure in North America, particularly in Canada, but that doesn’t mean automakers have given up. Singh’s book predicts that over 43 traditional and non-traditional automakers will introduce over 75 different models by 2015. In Canada, the last couple of months have seen renewed enthusiasm over building charging infrastructure around the country. This time, the automakers are not the ones making the noise. Rather, it’s the charging infrastructure manufacturers, installers and utilities.

Virtual Connected World:

The ghost of distracted driving never seems far from any talk of connected cars but there’s no scaring these machines. As I mentioned earlier, carmakers and Silicon Valley are on a quest for the “smart” car, or as I like to call it, tablet on wheels. Personal connectivity in vehicles is already here. But the stage is being set for cars that talk to fellow cars for, let’s say, greater driving safety but also for cars that communicate with infrastructure, paving the way for a possible future without drivers.

‘Value for Many’ Business Models:

Carsharing, pay-as-you-drive insurance, remote vehicle diagnostics and electric vehicle charging infrastructure are some of the emerging examples of converging business structures, allowing multiple entities to dip their toes into the revenue stream. Even within the traditional automotive industry, the mantra has shifted to streamlining of car platforms, enabling automakers to replicate models on a global scale without reinventing the wheel every time.

This final “mega trend” — the shifting gears of the carmarking business — is what gets my engine started and will be the underlying theme of this column. Where’s the industry headed? What’s changing? Who or what are these agents of change? What would Fred Flintstone say about driverless cars? (OK, just because its business, it doesn’t mean it can’t be fun). Hope you enjoy the ride!

  • Driverless car gets its day

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