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Why we should be (realistically) optimistic about the future of cars

Almost all the major carmakers are actively embracing the three big shifts: Electrification, autonomous driving and new ownership models.

The Acura NSX Experience, an interactive virtual driving reality display, at the 2017 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Michigan.
Bill Pugliano / Getty Images

A version of this essay was originally published at Tech.pinions, a website dedicated to informed opinions, insight and perspective on the tech industry.

I spent last week at CES in Las Vegas, and a couple of days earlier this week at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. In both cases, I spent a lot of time listening and talking to carmakers and others in the industry. What I’ve come away with from these two weeks is a lot of optimism about the future of cars, for several different reasons.

Both the industry and outsiders are pushing change

The biggest reason I’m positive about the future is that both the legacy industry players and newcomers and outsiders are pushing for change. There’s nothing more frustrating than seeing an industry where lots of good ideas are coming from outside and they’re all being squashed by the incumbents — we’ve seen this happen in the music industry and the PC industry, and we’re still seeing it in the TV industry. Though there has been some resistance in the past to the big shifts facing the automotive industry, almost all the major carmakers are accepting of the new realities and, in many cases, actively embracing the three big shifts: Electrification, autonomous driving and new ownership models.

The carmakers are actually engaging in their own efforts around autonomous driving and car and ride sharing. In the vast majority of cases, they’re also embracing electrification as one of several powertrain technologies. None of this is to say that these companies will end up owning all of this themselves — at the very least, the disrupters from outside the industry and newcomers like Tesla have pushed the incumbents to innovate faster, and they may well end up owning some of the end result, too. But I heard from company after company about their investments and experiments in a variety of car- and ride-sharing models, even in urban mobility projects that don’t involve cars at all, such as bike and bus programs.

There is realism about challenges, at least behind closed doors

At both trade shows, there were lots of high-profile proclamations about the glorious future we’re all headed to, many of them with specific timelines attached. Looking at the headlines that result from these statements, it’s easy to despair at a lack of realism from many of the companies involved. Claims about fully autonomous vehicles rolling off production lines as soon as 2021 seem absurd, but when you dig beneath the surface and talk to the actual engineers behind the technologies, you get a sense of nuance that’s often missing from those public proclamations.

What I found this week in particular was that carmakers are incredibly realistic about the very real challenges involved in bringing autonomous vehicles to market. There is definitely a headline-grabbing push to establish leadership in electrification and autonomous driving, but the people actually working on the technologies will tell you about all the complexities and challenges that exist. The real plans of the major carmakers around these topics are far more realistic about the actual timelines, which are much further out than the headlines would lead you to believe, at least for full-time Level 5 autonomous driving without geographic limits.

When it comes to electrification, there are also far more sanguine views about the effect of current low gas prices on demand for EVs, the need for more charging infrastructure and the limits of current battery technology. That realism is a good thing, because it means that even as these companies embrace change, they’re going to do it in a way that prioritizes safety and the customer experience.

The future looks exciting

At the end of the day, I’m most optimistic because the future of cars looks generally very positive. Tesla has already shown us both the enormous potential for high-performance electric cars and for limited autonomous driving. I used Uber and Lyft extensively over the last two weeks, and those services, and many others around the world, demonstrate the potential for far lower car ownership and more flexible mobility models.

What I saw at NAIAS this week also reassured me that we’re going to get great technology from the incumbent carmakers when it comes to all three of the major shifts, including increasingly high-performance electric and hybrid vehicles and assisted-driving technology that helps pave the way for future autonomous driving technologies. We, and especially our children, are going to be able to drive (or be driven by) cars that are much safer, more comfortable, more connected and better for the environment than the ones we drive today. The competition between the legacy industry and a whole variety of new players is pushing both sides to move faster in delivering that reality. That’s going to be good for all of us.

Jan Dawson is founder and chief analyst at Jackdaw, a technology research and consulting firm focused on the confluence of consumer devices, software, services and connectivity. During his 13 years as a technology analyst, Dawson has covered everything from DSL to LTE, and from policy and regulation to smartphones and tablets. Prior to founding Jackdaw, Dawson worked at Ovum for a number of years, most recently as chief telecoms analyst, responsible for Ovum’s telecoms research agenda globally. Reach him @jandawson.

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