my turn


Technology, Policy Rule In D.C. Auto Show

Technology and policy meet at the Washington Auto Show, and this year it became clear that the meeting is heading toward a collision. Here comes the autonomous-car confabulation of infrastructure, privacy issues, regulatory cobwebs and an impending legal logjam that will make Bleak House read like a gripping thriller.

On the first day, cyber techies from GM and Toyota, AutoNation, New York’s urban mobility director, an urban mobility research scientist and mobile app startup brain trust talked about issues that most people probably aren’t even thinking about right now: so you have an autonomous car. Or a connected car. You’re spinning off data like Chinese fireworks. Who owns it all? And by the way, who really owns the autonomous, connected car?

While automakers didn’t get into those issues the following day, during their presentations, they did amaze me with just how far they are going with new drivetrains, connected-vehicle capability and near-autonomous functionality. And how far ahead of the curve they are when it comes to infrastructure and the law.



Both Honda and Toyota see hydrogen ions dancing under the hood, and water dripping from the tailpipe. That’s the the long game. But John Mendel, EVP at American Honda, said that advancing electromotive technology is also a strategic product pillar for the brand. He said Honda is starting this year on all fronts with the new Accord two-motor hybrid, with the goal being a big increase of sales of core hybrids, and greater availability of alternative powertrain vehicles from Japan. He says Honda wants to have hybrids and variants be 20% of Honda’s light vehicle mix by 2020.

On hydrogen, both Toyota’s Murai, and Honda’s Clarity fuel-cell vehicles are coming in very limited volumes to California, the Clarity doing so this year. It will have a 300-mile capacity, and importantly, the entire drivetrain housed under the hood, which has been a big issue for hydrogen vehicles, as the hydrogen tank reduces passenger space. With a $60,000 sticker, Clarity will have a five-passenger capacity, and will be offered with estimated monthly lease under $500, Mandel said. “Sales volumes will be limited at first, but over time making it available for lease and purchase with sales volume and coverage growing.”

Jim Pisz, corporate manager, North American business strategy for Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., Inc., said a key hydrogen issue is developing incentives for getting fueling stations built. Toyota has backed 12 stations in five northeastern states and has supported 31. The goal, said Pisz, is that by 2050, the entire fleet will be fossil free. “Although consumers will decide, we think it’s our job to make sure we provide a portfolio of choices.”

Really interesting idea from Toyota, vis a vis vehicle autonomy: the automaker thinks of the interaction between drivers and autonomous cars (and probably cars and cars), mirrors, ideally, that of close friends. “We call it the TeamMate concept,” said Pisz. “Where driver and vehicle share responsibility for safety. Over time as sensors get smarter and the vehicle gets more automated, the more that can be turned over to the vehicle.”

Toyota also just announced a big drive toward artificial intelligence for the connected, autonomous car, which the company is pursuing out of a think tank, Toyota Research Institute, in Silicon Valley. Along those lines, Toyota’s connected vehicle framework will be anchored by a data communications module, connecting via cellular to Toyota’s data center, Pisz said. By 2019, the module (not sure what that is, to be fair) will be standardized across all Toyota vehicles globally. It also allows vehicle-to-vehicle comms. “When fully implemented, it will dramatically reduce accidents and fatalities.”

The Institute, focusing on AI and robotics, is being run by Gil Pratt, formerly of DARPA. And Toyota is spending $1 billion over the five years on the center, which has brick-and-mortar operations near both MIT and Stanford. “The primary mission is to bridge the gap between fundamental research and product development by finding intuitive ways to leverage artificial intelligence,” said Pisz. An example: a vehicle incapable of causing a collision. And driving accessible to everyone, and applying Toyota technology for “outdoor” to indoors.

Apologies to Chevrolet and Hyundai, both of whom are doing their own magic. More on that tomorrow.

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