Automakers Prepare for an America That’s Over the Whole Car Thing
By NEAL E. BOUDETTE
Dec 22 2016
FOR decades, automakers have been able to count on a fundamental fact of American life: You pretty much need a car to get around.
But lately, novel technologies, including ride-hailing services like Uber and advances in self-driving cars, are creating new alternatives for commuting, shuttling children and going to the store — particularly in urban settings.
There are also demographic and economic trends in play. Many younger Americans do not consider owning a car a goal or necessity — or a necessary expense. So carmakers are looking ahead to a day when the automobile plays a smaller role, or even no role at all, in many people’s daily routines.
“The historical model is you buy a car and it’s in your garage most of the time,” said Glen DeVos, vice president for engineering and services at Delphi Automotive, a big developer and supplier of automobile technology. “It’s the second-most expensive thing you buy after your home, so if you can get around without owning a car, there are a lot of economic reasons people may not own a car, or own only one instead of two.”
One clear sign of the shift is the increasing energy that carmakers are devoting to a design category the auto industry refers to as the “the first mile/last mile” challenge. It refers to the short distances some people must travel from home or work to a local destination, often a mass transit station.
Not so long ago, this challenge was strictly a matter for transportation authorities, and barely registered with automakers.
“People really didn’t think of the first mile/last mile issue because the car was the primary way to get around,’’ said Erica Klampfl, the global future mobility manager at Ford Motor Company. “You just drove your car to your destination.’’
In many ways, the industry’s race to solve the last-mile challenge involves the development of self-driving vehicles, an effort involving various carmakers, technology companies and start-up firms.
General Motors and its partner, Lyft, an Uber rival, are about to begin testing a fleet of self-driving cars ferrying passengers short distances in Detroit and other cities. Uber already has similar trials underway in Pittsburgh and has just expanded its tests to San Francisco. Next year, Delphi Automotive expects to have self-driving Audis providing rides to mass transit stations in a section of Singapore.
Ford, meanwhile, has vowed to begin producing a self-driving car, with no steering wheel and no pedals, by 2021. The vehicle would be intended for ride-hailing services in large cities.
If these types of cars and services proliferate, Mr. DeVos at Delphi said, people will have more freedom to not own automobiles.