Bob Lutz delivers the keynote address at WCX 2018 (image: SAE/KMS Photo).

Bob Lutz at SAE WCX 2018: ‘It’s all over’ for brands, driving pleasure

Speaking to a crowd of hundreds of engineers at SAE International’s WCX 2018 in Detroit, long-serving auto-industry executive and revered “car guy” Bob Lutz cut to the chase: humans who enjoy driving and car companies that rely on the concept of branding have another 20-25 years, then “It’s all over” as utilitarian, soulless automated vehicles handle nearly all conventional transportation needs.

“The car as we know it will still be with us, in declining numbers, for a few more decades,” Lutz said in a keynote address to the WCX attendees in Detroit. Then, it’s “not Road & Track,” he added, plugging the decades-old car magazine for which he occasionally writes, “it’ll be Map and Module,” referring to the operative aspects Lutz envisions in the automated-driving future.

Lutz tempers his Dystopian prophecy with a pragmatic bottom line, however: he said automated driving will bring new efficiency to vehicle travel—and “vast improvement to national productivity” as commuters rarely are stuck in rush-hour traffic, schedules are not disrupted by freeway accidents and some 90% of the 40,000-odd annual traffic deaths in the U.S. are eradicated.

The man who’s made a career of proselytizing the profit potential of vehicles that emphasize driving pleasure admits it’s come time for the human to be taken out of the equation and let machines do the driving. “Traffic is getting to the point where mobility is reduced,” and human traits cause “enormous loss of time and efficiency, not to mention lives.”

Brands and dealers beware

As the world progresses towards vehicle automation, Lutz said much of the aura that’s surrounded automobiles for most of the past 100 years or so, “doesn’t have much to do with (the automobile’s) primary function.” As a result, automated driving will erode the notions of brand and luxury, making vehicular transportation essentially a commodity, much the way a subway train or bus is seen as the “module” that gets us from one place to another.

In that consumer mindset, beware automotive brands – and the dealers who ply them.

In Lutz’s automated-driving future just a couple of decades from now, “The OEM is the link in the chain that is the most vulnerable,” he said, asking, ““Do you really care who made the subway car?”

And because of what he sees as an inevitable progression towards transportation anonymity, Lutz said the importance of automotive branding “will shrink radically,” while “suppliers are basically going to be okay.”

Lutz said the transformation to automated driving will occur in two phases over the next 15 years or so. First will come “robotic” taxis that operate almost exclusively in cities or heavily congested urban areas “that constantly expand.” He thinks these vehicles will be in motion almost ceaselessly and will eventually lead to these areas banning the use of human-piloted vehicles.

Second, he said, will be individually-owned automated vehicles that coexist with human-driven vehicles and operate largely in extra-urban areas and for interstate trips.

“The need is societal,” Lutz said, “and it is getting harder and harder for automobiles to fulfil that need. Autonomous vehicles are necessary and inevitable, he summarized, but “are they gonna be fun? Absolutely not.”

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