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We often look at cars in terms of what is right in front of us, or what we see as a “concept car” or a teaser or a spy shot. Sometimes we forget that we are therefore only looking at the present or the very near future. I surprised myself with how little I knew when an engineer told me once that what was getting funding for his department was what everyone else may well be writing off. Diesel technology and innovation. This made me remember that what we see and talk about doesn’t always give us a full picture.

This happened to me again with three online (yes, sadly still online) events. Let’s look at them in terms of how far into the future they are trying to look and what they are using for their information.

The first discussion was with the Future Mobility of the Year Awards organization, which focuses on concept cars as their basis for assessment. This awards body is part of KAIST, the Korean Advanced Institute for Science and Technology. KAIST is a serious think tank of cutting-edge innovation, and if you google them you may well see a statement by their president that they promise not to create killer robots. This may be funny, but it was in answer to the worry from other institutions of higher learning that their Artificial Intelligence studies were so far advanced that they were getting too much attention from governments and militaries. So, serious thinkers. In the case here though, the discussion was about concept cars which means vehicles or projects announced within the last year or so. What we have seen was huge innovation and open-minded thinking from unknown players, small companies that have no real connection to the traditional automotive industry and therefore think quite outside the box. In this case the box was a boxy pickup truck, which they reimagined as a vehicle of work for the modern craftsman and maker. This was telling us that all our preconceptions of what people will buy are almost out the window. Just look at the take up of what we now call China cars, the newer buyers just don’t care. And remember, this is nothing new. We experienced the same, depending on markets, with cars from Europe, Japan, Korea, all of which are now stalwarts.

Now let’s look at some questions asked in another discussion, this time with the World Car of the Year Awards which looks at current production and available vehicles globally for assessment. They worked with a consultancy group to try and see what the take up of technology would be for self-driving and automotive artificial intelligence. Discussion points were not really if or when, but rather at what point would people be comfortable. Zero electronic assistance? Remember that this would mean no ABS brakes and traction control. Does the car intervene or does the driver intervene? Does the driver ever take his hand off the wheel? It was surprising the nuance at which they were looking, including what the ethical were and who would make them? One of the most interesting things I heard was a story of having the talk bring in an airline pilot. Pilots need to be able to decide between saving their passengers or risking people on the ground. If you look at the decision point as the people in your car or the kids on the sidewalk, who would you prioritize? Or a bunch of kids versus some senior citizens? Who should make that choice?

The third conversation came about with Nikkei Asia, the business news and analysis group. They held a discussion on the questions we need to ask and what we need to know about “the road to sustainability and the future of EV”.

Panelists included Analyst Takeshi Nakanishi of the Nakanishi Research Institute and Lei Zhou, a Partner and Business Strategy Practice Leader at Deloitte Tohmatsu Consulting. So no car industry people, but rather general and financial business analysis guys. They were looking at trends and directions more than products, who was ahead and who was lagging in terms of things like artificial intelligence development and onboarding, what the stumbling blocks or bottlenecks were and who was addressing them and such. From their points of view, for example, Japan was viewed as lagging behind in terms of developing new technology versus China. Yet when we did the testing in real-world Tokyo  traffic with Lexus a few years ago, we came away amazed at the level of community and cross-company cooperation the Japanese vision of automated driving would be, as opposed to the developments by western (American) models where it was basically focused on what the car itself could do. What was surprising was how far ahead China companies were, yet there were also still disparities within the China-based brands. Clearly though in terms of technology, as we see in how quickly local cars from them have the latest Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, they have the lead. One thing to note, we have been in development centers where every single test electric vehicle in the country was being monitored real-time, and that is almost instantly scalable. That presents wonderful opportunities for data collection.

So while we as (traditional?) enthusiasts and consumers assess cars in terms of looks, safety, efficiency and such, these may not be the key questions of the future. Young buyers of all products now are demanding more environmentally friendly items, even though what this means isn’t all that clear yet. Will we be trading privacy for efficiency the way we seem to have traded away road feel and passion for safety and efficiency? Do we assume cars will be disposable and not the members of the family they were to many of us, and is that a good thing? Will we as people be judged less able to handle potential accidents and risks compared to a new computer system? What would the more responsible answer really be?

IN PHOTO: The main campus of KAIST (Korean Advanced Institute for Science and Technology) in Daedeok Innopolis in Daejeon, South Korea

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