“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”
These words of Henry Ford resonate with many inventors and entrepreneurs. To date, the automotive industry has seen many Henry Fords in various formats. Carl Benz took the dream of moving fast into a new era. Henry Ford brought cars to the home of middle-class Americans, Elon Musk made long-range electric cars a reality. The major inflection point was the assembly line technique of mass production of identical inexpensive goods. Also known as Fordism, this not only converted the automobile from an expensive curiosity into accessible transportation. It also profoundly impacted the landscape of the 20th century.
“Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black.”
Henry Ford along with others like Frederick Taylor, “Father” of the Scientific management and Efficiency Movement, documented their observations regarding efficiency, continuous improvement and standard products and later Shigeo Shingo and Taiichi Ohno applied their enhanced versions at Toyota resulting in “the Toyota Way” of lean manufacturing and “Kaizen” process improvement.
The influx of reliable cheap cars to the middle class increased additional investments in product quality and performance at the cost of alternative solutions and disruptive innovation. For example, in 1897, electric cars found their first commercial use as taxis in Britain and the US when taxis were horse-drawn. Electric vehicles (EV) were popular in the early 1900s until advances in combustion engine cars and mass production of such cheaper options led to a decline of EVs which is present to this date.
Autonomous horse-carriage era
Henry Ford realized affordable cars instead of a faster horse, 100 years later many companies try to realize the dream of autonomous mobility instead of riding a horse. This dream dates back to research in the 1920s on automated drive assist. But the road to a fully automated driving experience has been a bumpy one. Despite this Tesla has been pushing boundaries combining electrification with self-driving creating a fully electric autonomous experience.
The move toward self-driving cars both addressed the main existing safety issues by eliminating the single most dangerous element – the driver – and created new issues.
The first is technical: the challenge of building an AI [artificial intelligence] system that can drive a car. Advances in Semiconductor technology, better and cheaper performing electronics have found their way in the Automotive industry. The sensors and microcontrollers achieve the required functional safety level. And support the high computation demand to crunch and analyze terabytes of real-time data for seamless (partially) autonomous driving. On the other hand, the dependency to semiconductor and electronics have become such a crucial element of the technology that today production lines sit still because of shortage in SEMICON.
Legal and ethical
The second is legal and ethical: Who is liable for different kinds of faults? Our culture, personal and societal values, influence our decision-making under stressful situations. Autonomous algorithms not only need to fully function under different and harsh environmental conditions but also where and when human life is involved.
The third class of challenges is psychological. Unless people are comfortable putting their lives in the hands of AI, then none of this will matter. To create this trust, they need to see the resemblance of technology to their behavior and values. These inclusive psychological challenges have to be taken seriously otherwise people won’t buy the product. Besides that, economics won’t work, and that’s the end of the story.
The personalized era
The automotive industry has mastered design-for-safety, design-for-performance, and design-for cost. Autonomous driving touches more than technology, trying to get a share of the humanistic part of mobility. We are removing the human part from the function but need to include it in the equation. This is specifically important because the transition to fully autonomous driving and reaching 100% share of cars on roads is still years ahead. This provides the opportunity to make sure we also think of design-for-inclusion and design-for-diversity. Simply put it’s what the future needs and wants!
Read more about autonomous driving on Innovation Origins.
About this column:
In a weekly column, alternately written by Buster Franken, Eveline van Zeeland, Jan Wouters, Katleen Gabriels, Mary Fiers, Helen Kardan, and Hans Helsloot, Innovation Origins tries to find out what the future will look like. These columnists, occasionally supplemented with guest bloggers, are all working in their own way on solutions for the problems of our time. So tomorrow will be good. Here are all the previous articles.