Someone once wisely observed, “When you’re through changing, you’re through.” By that measure, our favorite Michigan industry is far from through. Change is coming on like a freight train in the auto industry, and he who chooses to ignore it, hide from it, or minimize its impact, will be left with his head spinning by the side of the road.
Bill Ford, Executive Chairman of the company that bears his name, is determined not to be one of them.
In recent months, Ford has made it clear that his company is ready to meet change head-on or, better yet, to lead it. No more putting on blinders like in the old days, Ford says. The current Ford is embracing these changes as a way to “provide our customers with what they want and need.”
General Motors, FCA and all the imports are echoing the same attitude. Once the enemy, change has become the industry’s friend…and its future. Whether it’s the race to autonomous, self-driving vehicles, the environmental concerns driving fuel economy, or the renewed focus on safety driven by ignition switch and airbag recalls, auto manufacturers and their suppliers are all in the hot seat and know they have to make significant changes to succeed.
The focus of all this, not surprisingly, is on the technology that will create the changes in the products and the engineering, design and manufacturing changes that will be required to accomplish them. Not so much has been said about what, at least to me, is the even thornier issue – the human and legal impact all these changes will bring.
In the case of autonomous vehicles, how will drivers react to a whole new way of behaving behind the wheel? Read the newspaper while you’re driving? Play a game of bridge with passengers in the back seat? If there are partnerships to develop the technology, as there likely will be, who will own the Intellectual Property – The OEM? The technology provider? The automotive supplier? The customer?
Even more importantly, what are the legal, on-the-road ramifications of these coming changes? Who’s responsible in the event of an accident involving a vehicle being driven by a computer? And who will decide? The local police department? NHTSA? The courts?
There are a mind-boggling number of complex legal and ethical questions that have to be studied, debated and decided before the first real customer vehicle hits the roads which, depending on who you believe, may come a lot sooner than many realize. We’re likely several years away from fully autonomous vehicles occupying our roads, but manufacturers, suppliers, the federal government, the courts and anybody and everybody else who has skin in the game would be very wise to start thinking about it right now. None of these decisions will come easily, and not having the public policies in place before the vehicles hit the roads will cause absolute havoc. It’s going to be a brave new world on our highways.