DETROIT – Auto makers are well into development of driver-assistance technologies such as lane- keeping and adaptive cruise control. Continental Automotive sees the next steps coming in 5-year increments leading to cars driving themselves most of the way between, for example, Detroit and Chicago.
The basic technology required is already understood, CEO Elmar Degenhart says at the North American International Auto Show here, and “we are convinced that automated driving has already begun.”
Rolf Cramer, in charge of Continental’s chassis and safety systems, notes some of today’s cars can take control for milliseconds at a time in the case of emergency braking. But it will be a while, perhaps 2025, before the driver can set the car to automatic pilot and watch a movie instead of the road.
“In our car,” Degenhart says of Continental's automated test vehicle, “we have integrated state-of-the-art or close-to-launch technologies, ready this year, and long- and short-range radar sensors, stereo and monochromatic camera systems and sensor fusion.”
The Germany-based supplier believes customer demand will go beyond cruise control and lane-keeping in 2016, with systems that allow low-speed autonomous driving in traffic jams, for instance.
A significant percentage of consumers “would be willing to spend about $3,000 for automated functions in certain conditions,” says Degenhart, citing internal studies. His business plan calls for annual sales of $1.3 billion (€1 billion) in five years, building from current advanced-driver-assistance systems.
Automated driving is not contradictory to a driver’s desire for independence, Degenhart says. Because it lets drivers do things other than study the fender of the car ahead of them during a traffic jam, he says, it increases freedom.
Continental has 1,300 employees working on automated driving, many of them in software development. The supplier sees young urban people and old folks with vision problems as prime customers for automation, the first because they want to do things other than drive, the latter because they want to retain their mobility safely.
“It is not a question of whether we will bring the Internet into cars; it is only a question of how and how fast,” Degenhart says. “Young people would bring it into cars in an uncontrolled fashion.”
The Continental chief says he is not concerned that a company such as Google, which has launched Nevada's first autonomous car, will become either a competitor in the auto industry or a customer for Continental components. “It is not a realistic scenario,” Degenhart says.
Google and other information-technology companies are not accustomed to the small margins and large capital investments with which the auto industry operates. They have no industrial production now, and “they are not willing to build up fixed costs,” he says. “We will be selling to the traditional OEs.”