When one of the biggest carmakers in the world suggests we all take a step back and look at the autonomous-car revolution more skeptically, it’s worth listening.
That’s what Toyota just did at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. According to Bloomberg’s John Lippert, Toyota’s view is that ” society has come to accept 39,000 traffic fatalities a year in the US, mostly due to human error, but would never tolerate similar carnage involving cars controlled by computers.”
Lippert added, “Toyota is casting scepticism on the anticipation stoked by Tesla Motors Inc. and technology companies led by Alphabet Inc.’s Google on the imminent arrival of fully autonomous cars.”
Tesla sells an enormous number of automobiles annually that are designed and engineered to be driven by people, not computers, so its position is understandable.
But the views are coming from Gill Pratt, chief executive officer of the Toyota Research Institute.
A history of scepticism
Scepticism about some of the more futuristic expectations in the auto industry is nothing new for Toyota. For years, the company was dubious about the widespread displacement of gas-powered and hybrid vehicles by electric cars.
As it turns out, those reservations were well-founded: electric cars make up only 1% of global sales, and in the US a new sales record for 2016 was just set — over 17.5 million new vehicles — on the back of pickups and SUVs.
Plenty of people want a Tesla, but at the moment nobody seems to want an EV from any other carmaker.
Self-driving cars, in the context, have become the New New Thing, but we’ve seen this movie before. Apart from Toyota’s concerns about public trust and toleration of autonomous vehicles, it’s unclear just how much self-driving tech will add to the cost of cars.
Cruise control, a technology that’s been around for decades, didn’t add much, but its capabilities are quite simple: It simply locks in the throttle at a given speed and allows the driver to give his leg a break.
It doesn’t permit one to stop paying attention, and even Tesla’s state-of-the-art Autopilot system isn’t one that any experienced driver would permit to take over control, unmonitored.
The leap then has to be on the attention-span continuum: What’s the tipping point when a driver becomes a passenger and the car handles all the work? That could be worth adding $5,000, or $10,000, or $15,000 to the coast of a car.
But if all we’re talking about is cars that require the driver to sit their like a pilot operating an aircraft on autopilot, closely monitoring everything, well then why not save the the money, be happy with advanced cruise control, and drive the car yourself?
Toyota is making that bet, and its wager should be taken seriously.