Carlos Tavares announced last year, in March 2019, that PSA had decided to withdraw from the race to level 4 and 5 autonomous car for individuals. This had sounded like abandoning a strategy on the belief that the goal was proving impossible to achieve. However, the main argument put forward was not technological, but rather the exorbitant cost of development, due to the ethical and legal aspects and the reputation risks for the company in the event of an accident. He was quickly followed by James Kuffner, Toyota’s general manager of R&D and Alexander Hitzinger, CEO of Volkswagen’s autonomous driving division. What at first seemed to be a singular strategic direction turned out to be an industry-wide statement.
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, Elon Musk continued to spread optimistic messages that demonstrated confidence in Tesla’s ability to bring autonomous passenger vehicles to market by 2020, targeting taxis in particular. This promise was echoed by Uber as an opportunity to continue its innovative positioning in passenger transportation.
This strange opposition between industrial leaders who each have colossal investment resources and are capable of radically transforming their industrial sector is interesting for several reasons. Would European interest be so great that it would slow down innovation on a large scale?
If we analyse the substance of each party’s discourse, there is agreement on progress and capacities. On the other hand, the customer positioning is different. The Americans manufacture cases of autonomy use in defined contexts and market them as they go along, looking for the right targets, while the Europeans think that the price, in any case, will be prohibitive for individuals.
The crux of the matter is the development of standards to control and regulate the use of autonomous driving functions. On the European side, manufacturers claim that, in addition to the costs of technological development, the development of standards will make the price prohibitive.
On the American side, manufacturers believe that the price will be much lower and that the development of autonomous driving is feasible.
Everyone agrees on the limits of autonomy, that nothing can totally replace a driver in the current context, however no initiatives are taken with the public authorities to transform the driving context, while it is in the process of being transformed for other modes of transport, such as cycling.
Finally, it is understandable that the use of autonomous driving will lead to an exponential development of shared and collective transport and will be the death knell for the private car. The weapon of the norm makes it possible to build effective barriers to market entry and, in this case, to prevent the development of an innovation which threat a violent destruction the existing car industry.
If the Americans manage to find the right customer segments for autonomous driving uses and continue to expand the level of self-driving, they will gain enough experience to become and remain the world leaders in the sector. As in the case of GAFAM, the oustiders will be so overwhelmed that they will have no chance of catching up with them. It will be up to the Europeans to wait for the next technological breakthrough.
Moreover, the future of the private car is tightly linked with the control of greenhouse gas emissions. For Europe, abandoning the level 4 and 5 autonomous car path means to increase its dependence on the United States technologies in a promising sector. It is a kind of surrender.