Auto in­dus­try steers in rad­i­cal di­rec­tion

The Daily Press (Timmins) - - OPINION -

There were few ad­vances made to the North Amer­i­can au­to­mo­bile be­tween 1939 (au­to­matic trans­mis­sion) and the early 1970s that were truly re­mark­able, and the tech­nol­ogy the ­D etroit-based com­pa­nies de­vel­oped in the early 1970s to ac­com­mo­date the U.S. gov­ern­ment’s new re­stric­tions on emis­sions was done un­der reg­u­la­tory duress.

That’s not the case to­day. Mod­ern cars are bristling with new tech­nol­ogy and as­ton­ish­ing ad­vance­ments, much of it driven by con­sumer pref­er­ence, in­tense com­pe­ti­tion and a chang­ing at­ti­tude to­ward per­sonal trans­porta­tion.

Within only a few years, every car com­pany has de­vel­oped ei­ther hy­brid-elec­tric ve­hi­cles or ve­hi­cles that op­er­ate only with elec­tric­ity.

More im­por­tantly, every com­pany is now rush­ing to de­velop self-driv­ing cars.

Out­side those ex­am­ples are a host of smaller trends: Mul­ti­ple cam­eras, ve­hi­cles that brake on their own to avoid col­li­sion, ve­hi­cles able to park them­selves and ve­hi­cles that al­low the driver and pas­sen­ger to ac­cess the In­ter­net.

Not to be for­got­ten are gaso­line en­gines that, when mated with su­pe­rior au­to­matic trans­mis­sions, are able to de­liver in­cred­i­ble fuel econ­omy.

There are el­e­ments to mod­ern car de­sign so ubiq­ui­tous their in­no­va­tion mer­its no at­ten­tion to­day. They in­clude air bags (GM, 1973), the three-point seat­belt ( Volvo, 1959), an­ionic elec­tronic coat­ing to in­hibit rust (Ford, 1958) and air con­di­tion­ing (Nash, 1954).

All of these in­no­va­tions are be­ing show­cased at the North Amer­i­can In­ter­na­tional Auto Show in Detroit, be­gin­ning on Satur­day, but the over-arch­ing push seems to be the self-driv­ing au­to­mo­bile, an idea as for­eign a con­cept to some peo­ple as air con­di­tion­ing must have been in the 1930s.

In­deed, while past in­no­va­tions by the Detroit-based in­dus­try sought to im­prove fuel econ­omy and safety while en­hanc­ing the driv­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, the self-driv­ing car would sat­isfy the first two ob­jec­tives while elim­i­nat­ing the third.

It’s a rad­i­cal thought, be­cause the au­to­mo­bile in­dus­try from the very start was pred­i­cated on the idea of per­sonal in­de­pen­dence and mo­bil­ity. Self-driv­ing cars de­mand de­pen­dence — a for­mer driver ced­ing con­trol and tak­ing the back seat to tech­nol­ogy. It’s a dra­matic ap­proach to per­sonal trans­porta­tion, and the an­tithe­sis of the cul­tural im­pulses that have al­lowed tra­di­tional Detroit car com­pa­nies to thrive.

But that these same com­pa­nies are ea­gerly em­brac­ing the tech­nol­ogy sug­gests self­driv­ing cars will some day be as ubiq­ui­tous as the three-point seat­belt. Peter Epp

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