I was invited to give a presentation on global development trends of autonomous driving and new energy vehicles and how China plays a role at a recent industry forum held on the sidelines of Auto Changchun 2016.
The topic was way too big and general for me to succinctly present my perspectives given that I only had 15 minutes of airtime.
So the way I approached it was starting off by talking about several major events that happened recently in the industry: the first death involving a vehicle (Tesla Model S) on “autonomous driving” mode (AutoPilot mode, to be exact, which is really a driver assistance function), several NEVs catching fire in China (10 such events in the first half of 2016 and three in June alone) and joint announcement by BMW, Intel and Mobileye to bring fully autonomous cars into production by 2021. It so happened that this announcement came a day after Tesla disclosed details of the fatal crash.
The point I wanted to get across was simply that while from a technology point of view autonomous driving is closer than we think and NEVs are rapidly becoming popularized, automakers should not forget that as they race to launch these technologies and products to market, safety must be a top priority, and it takes different stakeholders from within and cross industries to work together, such as the case with BMW, Intel and Mobileye, to make technologies work as they are intended to.
The fatal crash involving the Model S on AutoPilot mode and NEVs catching on fire all shared one thing in common: making sure that the technologies work properly and safely under extreme and all scenarios, which they did not. This is exactly the challenge faced by both autonomous driving and NEVs: in the case of the Model S crash, how AutoPilot should have identified the white tractor trailer and took appropriate actions and in one of the cases of new energy bus catching on fire, how the battery pack can avoid being short circuited while submerged in flooding.
It is sad and unfortunate that these events have happened and I described them as “growing pains” of the auto industry’s path toward autonomous driving and electrification. They should serve as wakeup calls and reminders for Chinese companies who plan to catch up and even try to lead the global industry in autonomous driving and vehicle electrification: safety must come first, and different stakeholders must work together to move the industry forward and tackle issues and challenges that hinder progress.