Emission fears and Covid mean the self-driving car could be a fading dream

Andrew English
·7-min read
young woman reading a book in an autonomous/driverless car - chombosan/Alamy
young woman reading a book in an autonomous/driverless car - chombosan/Alamy

The mantra “stay at home” was never more fully illustrated than at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES); normally a pretty chaotic affair in a vast Las Vegas exhibition centre, this year’s online version was possibly even more so.

Technology companies tend to throw stuff at the CES in the hope that some of it makes headlines although some things, such as sex technology, which is enjoying its second year of tacit approval at the show, never fail to intrigue.

Outside of such ripping developments as the spherical ice cube maker, the robot vacuum cleaner and sommelier, synthesised breast milk and endless new headphones and flat-screen televisions, this year’s presentations largely consisted of well-padded chief executives riffing on similarly optimistic themes about how tech will save us, conveniently ignoring the costs in terms of our livelihoods and privacy.

Bosch, for example, rehashed its catchily-titled Cross-Domain Computing Software initiative, which was first announced last summer and involves some 17,000 staff working together on new automotive technology. 

Yet more interesting than this digital office restructure was the footnote to its press conference, where this supply giant put the boot into fully autonomous driving technology, which thus far it had been keen on whipping up.

rendering of future driverless car
rendering of future driverless car

“The industry has understood that the complexity of the automation task is significantly more complex than we imagined up to eight years ago,” said Michael Bolle, Bosch’s chief technical officer. “Fully autonomous driving in the city in a robotaxi will take some time and will not be visible in the first half of the 21st century.”

Not so, according to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which announced the inaugural Indy Autonomous Challenge. Dallara, the Italian motorsport manufacturer, which builds cars for just about every one-make challenge around the world, must have thought all its Christmases were coming at once with this announcement. 

The plan is that, this October, 30 self-driving Dallara racers, programmed by teams from US universities, will line up at the famous Brickyard oval circuit to race 500 miles for a $1 million (£740,000) purse.

A couple of years ago, we saw the Roborace car drive itself up the Goodwood Festival of Speed hillclimb, which had all the visual appeal of watching particularly slow-drying paint. 

Goodwood Festival of Speed 2018 - self-driving 1965 Ford Mustang
Goodwood Festival of Speed 2018 - self-driving 1965 Ford Mustang

One can’t help feeling that the spectator appeal of this series will be that of watching the first corner on the first lap of the Monaco Grand Prix, namely watching a lot of very expensive machinery being lunched against the barriers. Will the winning car spray Champagne over itself or relocate to a tax-free life in Monaco?

Similarly bullish about the prospects of autonomy was Amnon Shashua, founder and chief executive of the Israeli self-driving tech firm Mobileye, which was bought out by Intel for $15.3 billion in March 2017. 

Shashua tends to speak like the output from one of his computers, but the not-so-hidden beat in his verbal data stream was that here was a man, made rich on the promise of self-driving cars, reassuring his employer that their investment hadn’t been wasted – while the rest of the motor industry is quickly backing away.

Mobileye was founded on the basis of its algorithm analysis of camera data rather than radar or remote-sensing Light Detection and Ranging (Lidar) systems, which Shashua regards as “redundancies” that can be added later on a self-driving car to add extra safety. In a somewhat gushing interview, he outlined his self-driving vision, which starts with robotaxis.

Like the founders of the lot of tech start-ups, he has little regard for the devastation it will cause those employed in the cab trade.

start of 1996 Indianapolis 500 race - Robin Jerstad/Reuters
start of 1996 Indianapolis 500 race - Robin Jerstad/Reuters

“Robotaxis are a gamechanger,” he said. “Removing the driver from the equation reduces the cost considerably and when you move into consumer autonomy, it’s completely disruptive.”

Shashua believes that “by 2025 we’ll start seeing gamechanging developments”.

Not so, according to Mark Bursa of Professional Driver magazine, who agrees with Bosch’s Bolle rather than Shashua. “In fact, we might never see self driving,” he says.

Bursa reckons that if you include drivers, cleaners, mechanics and despatchers throughout the UK, “the sector employs around half a million. But Covid has put the self-driving finance model into complete disarray, as instead of the car travelling from A to B to C, it now has to go from A to B, back to A and then to B and so on, as it has to thoroughly cleaned in between each fare. And who is responsible if you catch Covid from the cab interior?”

Bursa also points out that the motor industry’s biggest priority for the foreseeable future is carbon dioxide emissions and electrification; failure to act on these issues will attract crippling, almost existential, fines – so autonomy is well down the list right now.

General Motors CEO Mary Barra - Rebecca Cook/Reuters
General Motors CEO Mary Barra - Rebecca Cook/Reuters

Which brings us to the keynote speech from Mary Barra, chief executive of General Motors. In days gone by, “The General” would reveal a series of disconnected concept cars at the Cobo Hall in Detroit while snow blew around the shoes of the assembled press. This time we all sat on our sofas with our lockdown dogs, but the effect wasn’t that dissimilar to the GM Futurama at the 1939 World’s Fair; lots of jam tomorrow, with little hard data.

So, Barra outlined The General’s response to the trio of crises; Covid, Climate and Inequality, which in the first two cases consists of a load of new battery-electric technology for cars and light trucks, plus self-driving sometime in the future. Oh, and a flying car…

Leaving the flying car for a moment, the new ultium battery replaces up to 70 per cent of the cobalt used in the cell’s cathode to keep the structure stable during the charging/discharging process during which lithium ions are forced in and out. 

Instead, the GM ultium cell, built in conjunction with LG Chem, uses more aluminium and nickel and, in the process, provides up to 60 per cent more energy density than the current battery in the Chevrolet Bolt, which is the only battery electric car currently produced by the company. 

General Motors Hummer H2 (2008) - Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP
General Motors Hummer H2 (2008) - Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP

Barra says that her company plans a range of 22 battery electric vehicles (BEVs) by 2023, including a rebirth of the Hummer name on a monster electric truck capable of accelerating from 0-60mph in three seconds.

Various battery-powered Cadillacs were shown as concepts, some more fanciful than others, including a self-driving pod which wouldn’t be out of place on a stand at a Tokyo motor show during the Eighties, and then a flying concept which wouldn’t have been out of place on the firm’s aforementioned Futurama stand more than 80 years ago. 

The one-passenger, four-rotor electric Cadillac drone was shown taking off and landing vertically in a short video but that was it.

“We are preparing for a world where advances in electric and autonomous technology make personal air travel possible,” said Michael Simcoe, vice-president of GM’s global design department. “It is a concept designed for the moment when time is of essence and convenience is everything.”

He kept a straight face throughout…

behind the scenes on the set of the all-digital CES 2021 - 11/01/21 - AFP
behind the scenes on the set of the all-digital CES 2021 - 11/01/21 - AFP

From the ridiculous to the sublime, we also welcomed a return of the dashboard button, which everyone has been assiduously trying to get rid of. Witness GHSP's dual-stack rotary controller, which floats on the touchscreen replacing a bank of buttons – next up, Silicon Valley invents the Stone Age…

There’s absolutely nothing new in these rotary controls, introduced by BMW almost 20 years ago with its iDrive capstan control. The concept was transposed to screens five years ago by Panasonic, with what it termed its “big knob” knurled wheels, which are used on current Range Rovers. 

The difference with the GHSP system is the centre of the button, which rises up concentrically and contains a biometric fingerprint sensor to power up the car – just like your phone has done for years.

The longer you spend at CES the more you understand that there really is nothing new under the sun…

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