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4 Oct, 2019 07:03

All Bentleys, BMWs & Mercedes will be doomed in 30 years – ex-GM vice chair

Self-driving cars are already on our roads, but how will it change the way we live? We talked about this with the legend of American auto-industry, former vice chairman of General Motors, Robert Lutz.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Bob Lutz, it's really great to have you with us. Welcome to Moscow. 

Bob Lutz: Thank you.

SS: You are saying that in 15-20 years human-driven vehicles will be replaced by unmanned vehicles. What makes you think it will happen so soon? I mean, in parts of the world we see how people are driving horses and carriages. I mean, that kind of proves that integral methods don't go away so quickly.

BL: It's true. I may be a little optimistic with my 15 or 20 years. It could be 15 to 30, but it is going to happen faster than most people think because the technology is available. For instance, in the United States, we're seeing the first fleets of unmanned robotic taxis hitting the streets of San Francisco in 2019. And I think once it starts in the large cities, it will make very rapid progress because people will find that it's a much more efficient and safer form of transportation.

SS: So, I'm sceptical about all that, so let's go point by point because I'm an old fashioned kind of girl. First of all, you're saying that eventually human-driven cars will be banned from highways as potentially dangerous. Does that mean that once there will be only autonomous models on the road, there will be no more accidents?

BL: Well, I think the general consensus is that accidents will be reduced by 93 to 96 per cent. So, will there be the occasional malfunction or will we have a situation where the autonomous vehicle is placed in a moral dilemma? For instance, suddenly the autonomous vehicle sees a child in its path, but it can't stop because it's going too fast, and the other alternative is to go off to the side and hit a tree. So, does it run over the child and keep the driver safe? Or does it keep the child safe and go off and run into a tree. And there will be cases of, call them, moral dilemmas, where whichever choice the vehicle makes is going to be the wrong choice.

SS: Well, I mean that's the whole point, biggest point I think is also selling the trust. First of all, psychologically, when you're in an autonomous car, how do you trust a robot? You've just given me an example of how there would be problems with the dilemma: do I kill a child or do I hit a tree and kill the driver, or like we already know that an autonomous car has killed a cyclist. I mean it only takes a few accidents like that, and then in the news, and then people won't be able to believe the companies that sell…

BL: On that day where the Volvo in the United States hit the woman with the bicycle, first of all, all of the autonomous features of the car had been disabled. And basically the driver was in control. So that's not the press like that. But on that same day in the United States, one hundred and thirty pedestrians or cyclists were killed by normal cars driven by humans. Nobody talks about that. So nobody is trying to say that there will be zero accidents, but it will be less than a tenth of what we have today.

SS: But how do you sell the trust to people psychologically? Because when you're in charge, it's like you're in charge, and you can blame yourself. But we see drones are killing wrong people all the time, right?

BL: Let me remind you of the days when people wouldn't get into an elevator unless there was a friendly elevator operator who held the handle and made sure everybody was in, and then he closed the doors. You remember the old scissors-type door, crisscrossed, and he closed the inner door, then the outer door would close, and then he'd move the handle and go to the next floor. And now we're in autonomous elevators, and nobody worries about it, and all of the airports have autonomous trains that take you from terminal to terminal. So, it's just a question of people getting used to it. And then we shouldn't forget that the first couple of million users, especially in the United States, are not going to be individuals. The first couple of million users are going to be fleets, like FedEx and U.P.S., and the U.S. Postal Service.

SS: What's going to happen to all those truck drivers? Are they going to be out of business?

BL: What happens in every industrial revolution is people are displaced from one area and over time they have to find jobs in another area. But yes, I think anybody who makes their living as a delivery driver, or a garbage truck driver, or a bus driver, or a taxi driver in a couple of decades is going to have to find something else to do. I regret it myself. I mean I'm a passionate driver. I used to participate in automobile races. I like nothing better than high-performance cars. I like to think I'm a better driver than most people. So, will I miss it? Well, yes I will. No, I won't, because I'll be dead by the time it all happens.

SS:  We're going to talk a lot about the psychological aspect and cultural aspect as well. Before we get to that, I do a lot of stuff about cybercrime, and I know how easy it is to actually steal something online. So, considering that this car will be completely automated and wired to the online industry, it's going to be so much easier to steal it now. I mean you just have to hack into and ride away. You don't even have to break the glass or a wire. 

BL: Well, these vehicles will have to be very much hardened from an electronic standpoint too. Avoid hacking into them and disrupting the system and, of course, that's the problem of malware or malfeasance, or people abusing the system. That really exists in anything we do. I mean, it's like we do electronic banking, and then you say, “Well, we can't have electronic banking because somebody could hack into your account and steal your money”. Well, yes, they could. And in some cases, it happens, but we still believe in electronic banking. And just because there is some risk of electronic interference, it doesn't mean that we shouldn't enjoy the benefits of the technology. 

SS: So, also I'm thinking how do you sell that to Americans? Because Americans are fiercely independent. They hate any kind of government intrusion or control over them. So this is a car that could be stopped automatically for… You're stopped for tax evasion or a car that ultimately drives you and decide where to go. I mean, how does that sit with the concept of Americans being free and super individualistic?

BL: Well, that is a problem, and you do give up certain freedoms, you give up the freedom of being able to violate the speed limit, and traffic is so regulated today that you know which lanes you're supposed to be in, you know where you're supposed to go, you have to stop at stop signs, you have to not go over a certain speed. So, I mean human-driven traffic is very tightly regulated today and probably when they put the speed limits in 50 or 80 years ago people said, “This is outrageous. I don't want to be told I can only do 80 kilometres an hour. I want to be able to do one hundred and thirty kilometres an hour”. But people get used to these things, and at some point, it's not going to be a matter of choice. Because at some point, a city government, or a state government, or even the national government figures out that the remaining 30 per cent of human-driven vehicles are causing 95 per cent of the accidents. What the government does is, it says “OK. That's it. You have five years to dispose of your car and start using autonomous vehicles like everybody else. But at the end of five years, we are going to take your vehicle off the road”. And it's not popular, but unlike if you try to take guns away from Americans, you're going to have a revolution, because that violates the Second Amendment of the Constitution. 

SS: But you are going to have much less deaths too.

BL: The point is if you try to take guns away, you're going to have a revolution, but for the ability to drive a car there's no constitutional amendment that says you have a God-given right to drive your own car. And you're not really taking anything away, because the actual mobility will be improved, the ability to go from point to point quickly will be improved. And the time that you have available for your personal use will increase. Because when you leave work to go home, you get into the autonomous module and you can do anything you want. You could pull the curtains and go to sleep, or you could have your first drink of the evening…

SS: ...and not worry about being pulled over for it.

BL: That's an excellent point. When we think about how unreliable human beings are, we would not get into a taxi or a bus because human beings go to sleep, they drink, they have moments of inattention, we text on the phone while driving and so forth. And these are all practices that lead to a lot of accidents.

SS: We still don't know how reliable robots are either, because that's still a big question. I mean maybe statistically you're saying in the future we're going to have a ratio where robots make less mistakes than humans, but we still don't have that ratio. 

BL: Oh, yes, we have. Oh, yes, we do. The latest technology of autonomous vehicles as developed by Waymo which is a division of Google or General Motors using Cruise Automation which is a West Coast startup that General Motors bought, the vehicles have... On all the autonomous test fleets in the United States, they have to report the number of resets per month. A reset means that there was a failure, and you had to reset the car. General Motors and Waymo are down to zero resets per month. These things just work, and work, and work, and work, and never have a problem.

SS: Do you feel like Americans will eventually completely forget how to drive? 

BL: I think in another 30 or 40 years, we will have a situation where little grandchildren or little children ask their great grandparents, “Is it true that all these cars used to have people driving them?” And great-granddad says, “Yes, that's what we used to do.''

SS: That kind of scares me. 

BL: And then the kid says, “But is it true that you'd have two lane roads where one car would go this way at 100 kilometres an hour and another car would go this way 100 kilometres an hour?” The great grandfather would say, “Yes, that's what we did.'' And the kids would say, “Well, didn't you sometimes hit each other?” “Yes, sometimes it happens”. And the kids will shake their heads and say, “God, I don't know how you people did that”. 

SS: But why not leave the option to the humans of actually also be able to drive if they want it? For instance in aviation, the automation of flying is also happening but in a very different way. With the automated car that either drives you or sets total control to you at this point - I don't know what's going to be like in 15 years... With planes it's like “augmented piloting” route - it lets you drive but doesn't let you do anything stupid. Why not go down that road when it comes to automatic cars?

BL: Because you won't get the efficiency - the efficiency and decongesting the cities, and improving the throughput on the flow of transportation on any given road. The minute you start blending human-driven cars in with the robotic cars you lose the efficiency because then all the robotic cars are slowed down by the poor human reactions and the poor driving habits of the human being compared to a robotic car. I'll give you an example. If you stand at a traffic light, and your number is six or number seven down, and the traffic light goes from red to green, you can count to three before the first person starts to move. Then it's another one-two-three before the second person goes. So, after ten cars you've got 30 seconds which is most of the light. So if you're number 10 in a line of cars waiting for the light to change, probably you're not going to get through it, because everybody has wasted three seconds waking up. Whereas with a line of autonomous cars, when that signal changes, because these autonomous cars are all connected electronically, when the light changes, or actually we won't need a light - it can be an invisible signal, - all 10 or all 15 cars will move at once. And they'll move smoothly and with minimum front-to-rear separation. So, blending human-driven with autonomous is going to be a necessary thing in a transitional phase but it's not efficient. But you say: “Well, I want to drive” - and it's going to be just like the horse today. Horses are no longer seen on the city streets of Moscow or anywhere else because they're not an efficient form of transportation, they slow everything down. And frankly, they're hazardous in and around automobiles. But if you're a horse fan, you can still enjoy your horse, you can enjoy it in the western United States, and there are probably ranches in Russia someplace, where you can go right across the steppes - all you want, - and there are horse barns and riding stables.

SS: So, we are going to have car barns on ranches, so we can drive around with old manual cars? 

BL: Yes, yes! It’s starting in the States or areas where you have these automotive country clubs that are springing up around the big cities where the, I would agree, the well-to-do people could keep their cars at that country club where they have…

SS: So, manual cars in the future are going to be a luxury for the people that are well-off, right? 

BL: Yes, and they'll be collectors’ items, and it'll be like owning a horse today.

SS: So, what about this psychological concept. I mean we've touched upon it earlier and you said, “Well, I myself love driving beautiful cars”, but also I feel like driving a car is such an integral part of American culture, of becoming an adult, like, getting your driving licence. I mean driving coast to coast, Route 66... I mean the whole concept of “I'm going to take a drive to clear my head” - this is a very American thing. Because we like here in Russia or in Europe - we just go for a walk. 

BL: Yes. 

SS: I mean, how can that go away so quickly?

BL: Well, it is, it's actually already going away, and that what we call the millennials, the kids that were born after 2000…

SS: ...are the ones who live in social media. 

BL: Well, that’s right. I mean they're much more interested in their phones and in content, and in video-phoning each other and so forth. That is what's consuming their lives now: electronic technology in the form of handheld devices. And many of them are not that eager to learn to drive, because they've been driven around by mom all the time. And another new freedom that people don't think about so much is the freedom to not have to drive your kids around all the time anymore, and then you'll be able to send your small children to certain pre-programmed known addresses like well-known houses of friends or kindergarten, or whatever to where the kids can take an autonomous vehicle to go to these pre-specified places. Old people who can no longer drive or were partly blind or something like that will be able to safely navigate. So, in one sense it takes away the freedom of holding a steering wheel, but it also replaces that with the freedom of being able to go anywhere, any time, whether you're healthy or not, whether you could see or not, whether you're asleep or not, whether you want to work on the way or… -  it doesn't matter. You just get into that module, and it safely takes you where you want to go. And that's a form of routine.

SS: The whole concept of turning these self-driving cars into modules is that they won't be owned, right? It's going to be sort of your personal train compartments, they're all going to look the same, they're going to all drive at the same speed, and then the American car industry is also based on individual expression. I mean all these cars that we see advertised on TV, they're ultimately saying that if you drive me, you're better than the person next to you.

BL: Yes, we call it “I have it and you don't”.

SS: Why not let the self-driving cars also be different from each other: looks-wise or compartment-wise, why take away that individuality?

BL: But what's the utility if all of these modules belong to fleets and none of them belong to individuals? What's the value in having them badged Bentley, or BMW, or Mercedes? The public doesn't care because the public isn't going to own these things. These things will be owned by the large transportation fleets.

SS: So, all those Porsches and BMWs - that's going to go out of business?

BL: Ultimately yes, it's doomed.

SS: Or maybe they will focus on luxury interior for these modules instead of the engine?

BL: But see, people aren't going to own these things. So if they don't own them, why bother? Yes, inside the cities, there will be no private ownership of vehicles, because the cities do not want these things cluttering up the city. The average automobile spends less than 10 per cent of its time, actually going someplace. The rest of the time it's sitting around waiting for people to use it. And that's the beauty of autonomous modules: they'll be in use all the time. But out in the country, in the suburbs - yes it's quite possible that people will still be able to own a car, and that might be a van type, and they might have all their vacation stuff: tennis rackets, and water skis, and everything so they can always...

SS: You mean, use it like a basement?

BL: But the problem is once they decide to use it, it's going to have to be entered into the computer-controlled transportation floor. Dad cannot sit behind the wheel and decide. What they're going to have to do is they're going to have to program in their destination. And then apply it to enter into the traffic flow, and it'll only take a couple of minutes, and then they'll be entered into the traffic flow. Now one of the reasons why the city modules have to pretty much all be the same is because you're going to have on the big motorways or freeways in some places in the States... You will probably have inductive electric cables which charge the batteries of the modules while they're on the freeway. And so these cables will be embedded in the concrete maybe 5-6 centimetres below the surface. And on top, the modules will have minimal separation between each other, maybe 25-30 centimetres max, and they have to be like sausage wheels because when they're all together in a train, they have to look like a big long snake. And if you take a train and you do this with the railroad cars, you have a lot of air resistance which is why railroad cars are all long tubes, and then they stop, and then there's another long tube because that's minimal air resistance. So, all the modules will join into this train, and the train will probably go at like 300 kilometres an hour. And when you get close to your exit, your module will automatically separate out of the train, and it will go into deceleration lanes. The gap that your module left will be filled so that in a few seconds it'll all be closed up again. Then your module goes under a reader, where you will be charged for the number of kilometres that you spent on the motorway, and then you proceed to your ultimate destination. But so for urban use... Aerodynamics play no role in urban use like 60 kilometres an hour or less. Air resistance isn't that big a thing. But on the freeway, it will be important for all of these modules to be basically shaped like a big cylinder.

SS: I don't know what to tell you about it. I hope I won't live to see that. I hope it will happen 50-60-70 years time when I’m gone. 

BL: By the time this evolution is complete, you'll probably be at the point where you'll be glad to sit back in a module and go someplace without having to do anything.

SS: Let's see what happens. Thanks a lot for this fascinating interview. I wish you all the best of luck.

BL: I don't like it either, but it's going to happen because it has to.

SS: All right, let's, we'll just have to go along with it. Thanks a lot for this. 

BL: You're quite welcome.