Is human driving about to be history?
To hear some investors and analysts tell it, self-driving cars will soon take over the industry, bringing us immense improvements in safety and efficiency.
One big-league Wall Street analyst has even gone on record predicting that private ownership of cars will essentially come to an end by 2030 or so, as fleets of robot cars-for-hire provide for our transportation needs instead.
But is this all realistic? At least one high-ranking auto executive isn't buying it -- and he wasn't shy about telling us so.
A mission to make cars for human drivers
Johan de Nysschen is a General Motors (NYSE:GM) executive vice president, and also president of GM's Cadillac luxury-car brand. He's been charged with elevating Cadillac to the top tier of global luxury-car names, and since joining GM last summer, he has taken a number of bold steps toward putting Cadillac back on the shopping lists of German-luxury-brand loyalists.
As part of that push, de Nysschen has frequently emphasized that Cadillac is now making "drivers' cars." In a nutshell, de Nysschen's argument is that brands like BMW have watered down their offerings to appeal to the broadest possible audience -- leaving an opening for a competitive luxury brand to step in with more targeted, better-handling cars.
Recent Cadillacs like the ATS and CTS sedans have certainly lived up to that message. Both have impressed critics as exceptionally nimble and fun to drive -- and de Nysschen plans to build on that critical success with several more new Cadillacs between now and the end of the decade.
But one of the biggest trends we've seen in luxury cars is the movement toward self-driving technology. Mercedes-Benz already has a model with limited self-driving capability, Tesla Motors (NASDAQ:TSLA) is rolling out similar features, and BMW and Audi -- and Cadillac -- have promised their own basic self-driving systems within a year or two.
How does de Nysschen square self-driving technology with Cadillac's mission to build "drivers' cars"?
"Precisely what we should not do"
In a nutshell, he's not buying the robot-car vision quite yet -- and he's not seeing it as a future path for Cadillac.
"I think autonomous driving is precisely what we should not do," de Nysschen told me at last week's New York International Auto Show.
But he does think there's a role for some self-driving technology in Cadillacs, even if it seems to be at odds with the brand's sports-sedan emphasis:
For me, we should harness the technology to offer driving assistance and to enhance the safety envelope. But we are a brand that focuses on making driver's cars, and so it's kind of an uncomfortable position to be in to discuss this concept.
But there are many driving circumstances where driving, as enjoyable as it is, and as fantastic as the cars might be, becomes a bit of a chore. So imagine you're in slow-moving, stop-start traffic. It might be very useful to let the car take over. If you're on a long road and it's just 10 miles of sheer uninterrupted monotony, this might be a useful circumstance that the car take over.
I think this is a vision many drivers -- even enthusiasts -- might find appealing. Many of us aren't ready to hand over all of the driving chores to a computer yet -- but having the computer take over in a traffic jam sounds pretty nice.
That's essentially what Mercedes' Intelligent Drive system does (in a very limited way, at least so far), and it's what Cadillac's Super Cruise system will do when it's rolled out next year.
But going beyond that? Don't hold your breath.
The roadblocks to a self-driving future won't be technological
De Nysschen, like other auto executives I talked to in New York, thinks the roadblocks to fully self-driving cars will prove harder to surmount than many tech-minded advocates currently realize.
"We don't see [fully autonomous cars] arriving anytime soon -- not for technological reasons, but more or less for legislative reasons and a whole bunch of questions around liability," he told me. "That we'll get to the point where this utopia that is described by many in Silicon Valley -- where we are little pods that drive themselves around -- may not happen soon."
Tesla CEO Elon Musk has made a point of saying that his company's upcoming self-driving features are for use only on private property -- a nod to the fact that the laws and liability issues around this technology are far from being fully worked out.
But as de Nysschen seems to see it, that's not all that's holding the technology back. Some folks just like driving and will be reluctant to give it up altogether. De Nysschen seems determined to ensure that Cadillac, at least, will be catering to that audience for a while.
What do you think? Is Cadillac setting itself up to miss the next great technological revolution? Or is the company right to think that some drivers will resist giving up the wheel -- and will want great cars to drive (themselves) for the foreseeable future? Scroll down to leave a comment with your thoughts.