Uber, Tesla Crashes Prompt Rivals to Warn About Cut Corners

(Bloomberg) -- As the global auto industry vies to deploy driverless cars, some contenders may be cutting corners in a bid to get ahead, carmakers warned in the aftermath of the first pedestrian death tied to the emerging technology.

“Some competitors, not by name because there are several, they’re trying to race to be the first one to show autonomous driving. I’m not so sure what being first gets you,” Jack Hollis, group vice president of U.S. sales for the Toyota brand, said on the sidelines of the New York International Auto Show. “What’s important is to be able to give the customer 100 percent confidence.”

Toyota Motor Corp. is one company in an expanding roster of traditional carmakers and Silicon Valley upstarts trying to bring autonomy to the masses, a lofty goal that’s facing new obstacles after an Uber Technologies Inc. vehicle operating in autonomous mode struck and killed a woman earlier this month. The market is also trying to unravel whether or not a Tesla Inc. SUV was operating in Autopilot mode when it was involved in a fatal crash on Friday.

No Reason to Rush

General Motors Co.’s Cadillac echoed the sentiment that slower and safer should take priority in this critical development stage. Although Cadillac offers Super Cruise that lets drivers take their hands off the wheel -- with a recent commercial spot quoting a Mashable review: “Tesla, eat your heart out” -- brand chief Johan de Nysschen said there’s no reason to rush the new technology.

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“We firmly believe that beta-testing and development should be done in a controlled environment, and in the hands of experienced engineers, not in the hands of consumers,” Cadillac’s president, de Nysschen, said in an interview on Bloomberg Television from the show floor. He noted that GM and its Cadillac luxury brand have been “extremely conservative” in the introduction of semi-autonomous and autonomous driving tech.

“If this means we have a slower rollout, then so be it,” de Nysschen said. “Given the stature of GM, we have to make sure that the way we roll out the technology is building confidence among consumers and regulators alike.”

GM still plans to deploy self-driving cars in 2019, Chief Executive Officer Mary Barra said Wednesday in remarks at a Bank of America auto event.

Skipping Steps

Following the Uber accident, Toyota halted tests of its “Chauffeur” autonomous driving system on U.S. public roads. Toyota had been doing on-road testing with self-driving vehicles in Michigan and California with a small fleet of cars.

“When it comes to safety, we don’t mess around,” Hollis said. “What’s going to happen is, when Toyota brings it out, we are going to be fully confident that every customer who wants to get into it can be 100 percent confident.”

“While some people want to jump and skip steps to get to autonomous 5, we’re going to take our steps, just like we do in every case, and be quality in every one,” he added.

Peter Schwarzenbauer, a board member at BMW AG, said experience is also key when developing driverless tech.

“It comes to human judgment: Do you trust your life to companies which have a proven record that we are able to bring safely cars to the market, or would you trust your life to somebody who has just launched their first car?” Schwarzenbauer told reporters at the auto show. “We have proven we can bring very complex hardware to the market in a very safe way. And by the way, when we announce something, we deliver.”

Lior Ron, a central figure in Uber’s self-driving-truck project, left the company, people familiar with the matter said Wednesday. The departure is unrelated to the fatal collision last week in Arizona, said a person familiar with the matter, who asked not to be identified discussing personnel matters.

Pushing the Envelope

Joe Vitale, global automotive leader at consultant Deloitte, said the Uber and Tesla crashes have created much more visibility about the issues surrounding autonomy and may have woken up regulators to the fact that this nascent tech needs structure and rules.

“It has -- rightfully so -- maybe slowed down some of the companies that may be pushing the envelope too much,” Vitale said in an interview in New York. “Hopefully, this puts some reality into the non-traditional players who have been pushing the envelope too far.”

Overall, Toyota said it is going to take its cues from consumers. Even before the Uber accident, 63 percent of Americans said they’d be afraid to ride in a fully self-driving car, according to a AAA survey.

“I’m not even sure what is the percentage of people who want fully autonomous driving anyways,” Hollis said. “Take for example, myself: I’d rather drive.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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