Car enthusiasts face diminished influence in self-driving future

Senators Want NHTSA to Put Autonomous Driving On Fast Track

In many circles, the prospect of autonomous and self-driving cars taking over American roads is greeted with enthusiasm. Among car enthusiasts, however, the idea of removing the driver from the driving often sounds like a soulless and grim transportation future.

The question of whether enthusiasts will be left behind on the highways of the not-too-distant future was one of many topics addressed by energy and mobility experts during a panel discussion Thursday that examined innovation and sustainability in the auto industry.

Industry leaders may be influenced by a small cadre of enthusiasts now, but panelists predicted that their sway in future products will fade as cities grow and consumers demand efficient mobility more than performance from vehicles that they may share instead of own.

Jean Redfield, president and CEO of Next Energy, a Detroit nonprofit that accelerates developed of advanced energy technology, worries that in some ways, that influence could slow the adoption of new solutions to mobility problems.

"That's exactly the issue I have a lot of concern about, that our most seasoned decision-makers are informed by the car-enthusiast community," she said. "That's not the sustainability market. What the car enthusiast aspires to and gets excited about, and what broader mobility solutions require – and what we need to figure out – are technology roadmaps that make sense."

While the concepts of emphasizing autonomous and self-driving technologies to move people around ever-more crowded cities are certainly not new, the discussion, hosted by auto supplier Ricardo, was a timely one.

Also Thursday, two US Senators asked the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to better "lay the foundation" for the driverless-car future. Sen. Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) and Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Nebraska) asked the regulatory agency's administrator to push past the testing phase of autonomous technology and ensure policies and laws are in place to handle the operation of such vehicles.

Among the questions the senators sought answers for were, "What steps is NHTSA taking toward finalizing a policy on automated vehicles that embraces innovation and improved safety benefits?" and "What barriers exist to the research and integration of autonomous vehicles that Congress could address?"

NHTSA has already been working on answers to those questions, and they undoubtedly include vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communication that will transform roads. Once that infrastructure is ready, panelists said they expected consumers will adopt the technology.

"My personal driver is a Mazda Miata, and I love the experience," said Ann Marie Sastry, CEO and co-founder of Sakti3, a Michigan-based advanced battery company that secured $15 million in funding from Dyson earlier this week. "But if I didn't have to commute or I could get a self-driving car on my way to work, I would do so. That option is not yet available. The notion that people are selecting the device they want right now, that's not right. If the infrastructure changes, the experience will change."

The full discussion was shown on PBS Detroit. You can find it here.

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