Business / Motoring Opinion

Hesitation is a difficult roadblock to pass

By Pedro Nueno (China Daily Europe) Updated: 2016-06-27 15:09

Automakers and consumers both holding off from jumping into self-drive vehicles until uncertainty removed

I read in a newspaper two weeks ago that, in 2030, half of the cars in the United States will be self-drive vehicles.

Imagine being in a car that takes you from one place to another while you work (or sleep) in the rear seat. You'd just input an address and the car would find the best route to get there, and then drive to that destination. The car would even be capable of leaving you exactly where you wanted to go and then continue alone to park in the nearest available spot.

For years, we've only seen such scenes in movies. Today, practically all car manufacturers are testing prototypes of autonomous cars.

Carlos Gohsn, president of Nissan-Renault, said during an event a couple of years ago that he had been inside a car that had parked itself in downtown Paris.

Now, we finally have technology that makes it possible for a car to drive autonomously in a reliable way. It is a combination of sensors, connections, software, and data availability. With adequate sensors, for example, a car can detect if the vehicle ahead is slowing down and adjust its speed accordingly.

But if we have the technology now, why are all the car companies saying they will only start selling self-drive cars in 2018 or even 2020? Why not launch them to the market now? There are no easy answers to these questions. In fact, they give rise to even more questions, such as are we sure consumers wants autonomous vehicles?

I'm sure that if I see passengers enjoying the benefits of self-driving cars (reading a newspaper in the rear seat, scrolling through photos or messages on a cellphone) I would probably go to the dealer, test one for myself, and perhaps buy one. And if there were a study by a leading management school that shows that autonomous cars have fewer accidents than conventional cars, I would not have any doubt.

I'm convinced that if, in 2030, half of the cars in the US are self-driving, the numbers will not be different in the rest of the world. Then, in 2035, probably three-fourths of the cars will be self-driving, and in 2040, all of them will be.

If at some point half of the cars are self-driving, this means that the consumer wants this and that it is available. The big question is what the consumer wants, and what probably delays the commitment to making a serious launch of self-driving cars is the uncertainty about the reaction of the consumer.

Nobody wants to make the news as a failure. We can imagine CEOs of car manufacturers in the rear seat of a fantastic prototype, ready to launch if somebody else does; but nobody wants to be the first. And as consumers, we have the same problem. If, for one reason or another, autonomous cars do not work, we do not want our friends and colleagues to offer us up as an example of bad decision-making.

I have a solution. Car manufacturers need to launch a pilot project. It would make sense to approach young consumers who are thinking of buying their first car and offer them a financial package to buy, rent or perhaps share self-driving cars.

With the pressure that is building on car manufacturers, this may happen at any moment. But a word of caution: Let's remember that electric cars are a much simpler concept, have been around for many years, and yet their market share is still small.

The author is a professor of entrepreneurship and president of the China Europe International Business School in Shanghai. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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