WHAT COULD POSSIBLY GO WRONG?
Tuesday, December 11, 2018 at 10:50AM
Editor

By Peter M. DeLorenzo

Detroit. As the auto business turns and churns, it’s clear that we’re heading for some sort of cataclysmic denouement, when things will not be what they seem and everything we knew – or assumed – will somehow by fundamentally altered. Companies will be absorbed, merged or flat-out go out of business, and new alliances and companies will emerge positioned to power the “new” mobility to wherever it is going. 

And that is the ultimate question. Where is it all going? The people who are most certain of where things are going are all involved in autonomous vehicle development; they call themselves visionaries and are smugly emboldened in their pursuit. And that’s fine, I appreciate visionaries, at least to a point. But make no mistake, there is a sinister aspect to this pursuit, and it revolves around the basic conceit of “We know what’s best for you even though you don’t have the capacity to understand it.” In case you’re puzzled by this don’t be, it’s just third-degree hubris in all of its ugliness, something the “we know what’s best for you” contingent is expert at.

As I’ve said repeatedly, autonomous vehicles will have their place in the future, but in limited applications and for specific uses. And that’s fine. But beware of the idea that AVs will be the panacea for all of our transportation problems and needs, because it’s just not going to work that way. I get the fact that the people toiling away in the AV space are steadfast in their convictions, that they truly believe that they’re the new Masters of the Universe and that the hoi polloi – aka you and me – are just too dim to understand the ramifications of their extraordinary work. But the boundless enthusiasm I see coming from the AV True Believers, combined with the massive amounts of money being thrown around, has disaster written all over it.

Legacy auto companies downloading huge sums of cash into the AV space are gambling the future of their companies on an idea bolstered by a wing and a prayer. It’s a Faustian bargain with no guarantees. There’s a stark either/or quality surrounding all of this. If they guess right, they will live to fight another day and maybe even tap into a revenue stream of gargantuan proportions. If they guess wrong, it could mean the permanent end of their involvement in the automobile business. 

I’m getting the distinct feeling that for two of the companies involved in the AV pursuit – Ford and GM - there is no “Plan B.” They’re neck-deep all-in, to the detriment of their ongoing business. Sure, they will vehemently deny this is so, that they have things under control and that they understand the need to balance their traditional business with their future endeavors, but who’s kidding whom here? As I’ve said before, I understand the Detroit executive mindset to a “T.” I know the way they think and why they’re thinking it, and I understand how they approach their assignments. AVs are the latest shiny objects, and these companies are willing to jettison seasoned executives by the thousands in favor of younger digital disciples who will competitively project these companies successfully into the AV circus. It’s amazing how much Detroit executives look like short-term thinkers while they’re delving into The Future. It’s the damnedest thing, in fact.

Yes, to some I will be immediately dismissed as a dullard and thrown in with The Unenlightened who will be stubborn obstacles on our Path to The Future, and so be it. I’ve been in and around this business for a long time, however, and I have observed as executives have made the same mistakes over and over and over again. They just can’t help it. 

I will admit that, as shiny objects go, the promise of AVs is a wondrous thing filled with superlatives and bathed in the glow of a future society that’s somehow inherently better, so what could possibly go wrong?

But as much as the road to The Future is paved with good intentions, there’s a high probability that unforeseen obstacles are going to disrupt the self-proclaimed disruptors. And it won’t be pretty.

And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.

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