Opel Chief Executive Officer Karl-Thomas Neumann (Photo: Opel)

Karl-Thomas Neumann: How Opel will become the household name for self-driving mobility

Technology and Business, Private Life and Mobility

Angelo Rychel

14-12-2016

       

In an exclusive interview with 2025AD, Opel CEO Karl-Thomas Neumann explains why his company is in a perfect position to drive social acceptance for driverless cars – and why they will come a lot faster than many experts think.

Karl-Thomas Neumann is known as a passionate marathon runner. But when it comes to driverless cars, the Opel CEO also demonstrates the qualities of a sprinter. Neumann is confident that autonomous mobility is just a few years away. In our interview, he talks about Opel's cooperation with parent company General Motors, driverless ride-hailing services — and how he wants to establish Opel as a household name for self-driving mobility.

 

 

2025AD: Mr. Neumann, Opel successfully reinvented the brand a couple of years ago with the claim “U-Turn in your head (Umparken im Kopf)”. Would you say that autonomous cars also require a “mental U-turn” for consumers?

 

Karl-Thomas Neumann: Definitely! Autonomous driving is currently one of the buzz words in the car industry. I am sure that the autonomous vehicle will come – and it will come a lot faster than some people think.

 

We at Opel and GM believe autonomous vehicles will make transportation safer and more efficient. Thus it will enable the future of mobility. Fully autonomous vehicles can bring customers enormous benefits in terms of greater convenience, lower costs and improved safety for their daily mobility needs.

 

 

2025AD: Until recently it seemed like Opel did not put as much emphasis on driverless cars in their communication as other OEMs. Recently you have stressed the importance of autonomous vehicles at various occasions. Was there a change of heart?

 

Neumann: We are not all that far away from autonomous driving in everyday life. We at Opel already demonstrated the development of automated driving with an Insignia research vehicle at the Intelligent Transport Systems World Congress in Detroit in the fall of 2014.

 

Even more conservative prognoses forecast that in 15 years, the penetration of autonomous vehicles will be at 15 to 20 percent. In 2030, we could see cars that don’t even have steering wheels anymore. The fact that GM established a separate unit for autonomous vehicle development and acquired Cruise Automation, a company specialized in this field earlier this year underlines the priority this area has in our company.

 

 

2025AD: Several OEMs have named a timeframe of around five years as a target to put autonomous vehicles on the roads – while some experts think this might take a few more years. What makes you optimistic that you will succeed this quickly?

 

Neumann: The time is ripe for autonomous driving. The necessary single technologies to make the vision become reality are already there. For example look at our Opel Astra. The European “Car of the Year 2016” offers various and innovative driver assistance technologies - e.g. side blind spot alert, forward collision alert, lane keep assist with automatic steering correction etc. The rapid advancement of connected technologies is providing the foundation for automated vehicles that make driving safer and easier.

 

On a global level our work is this area is already well underway. GM is cooperating with Mobileye, a technology company that develops advanced, vision-based driver-assistance systems that are key building blocks for autonomous driving.

 

GM’s premium brand Cadillac will debut a hands-free highway driving feature called Super Cruise enabled by advanced GPS and LIDAR-based maps in 2017 on the Cadillac CT6 sedan.

 

 

2025AD: Your parent company General Motors is pushing for driverless vehicles. How does the cooperation work - is Opel also conducting independent research on the topic?

 

Neumann: At Opel and GM, we are actively developing the technologies to enable partially autonomous and, eventually, fully autonomous vehicles – cars that can drive themselves. GM has established a separate business unit for autonomous vehicle development at the beginning of this year. Since engineering is a global function, Opel is part of the development activities in this important future field.

 

Opel is building a prototype that can display the essential functions of cooperative highly automated driving on the Autobahn, i.e. automatically entering the Autobahn and merging with the traffic, driving on the Autobahn including over-taking maneuvers, and finally exiting the Autobahn automatically. Initially Opel will test and validate the prototype hardware and the highly automated driving functionality on a proving ground. Testing will continue on public roads as soon as the prototype technology has reached a sufficiently advanced stage. This is part of Opel’s involvement in “Ko-HAF – Kooperatives hochautomatisiertes Fahren”, a German project researching cooperative highly automated driving.

 

Furthermore, Opel is a partner in several current or recently completed initiatives researching accident-free and automated-driving at the national and European level, such as “AdaptIVE”, the flagship project of the European Union on automated driving, UR:BAN, a German project researching cooperative highly automated driving and many more.

View into the inner life of an Opel Ampera-e. (Photo: Opel)

2025AD: You recently said that you believe that “autonomous driving will not be established top-down, but rather bottom-up.” Can you elaborate on what you mean by that?

 

Neumann: I am convinced that mainly professional providers such as ride-hailing services will drive social acceptance of autonomous driving. In general, these innovations no longer just come from luxury cars – just look at our electric car pioneer, the Ampera-e, for example. The Opel brand has always been synonymous with democratizing technologies.

 

 

2025AD: Will Opel transform from a car manufacturer into a mobility provider? What role will the cooperation with Lyft play, the ride-hailing service that GM has invested in?

 

Neumann: To successfully shape the automotive future, carmakers will need to do more than just build impressive vehicles. The extension of the mobility service portfolio is a key pillar in Opel’s plan for the future as it will be crucial to evolve from a product manufacturer to a provider of mobility services.

 

With innovative services and concepts like OnStar or Maven and our partnership with Lyft as well as groundbreaking products like the Ampera-e, GM and Opel are at the forefront of defining the future of personal mobility. We see tremendous opportunities in these technologies, including the chance to develop dramatically cleaner, safer, smarter and more energy-efficient vehicles for customers around the world.

 

GM and Lyft are developing an integrated network of on-demand autonomous vehicles in the U.S. that leverages GM’s deep knowledge of autonomous technology and Lyft’s capabilities in providing a broad choice of ride-sharing services.

 

 

2025AD: What developmental opportunities arise from the GM acquisition of California-based start-up Cruise Automation?

 

Neumann: The acquisition of Cruise Automation adds deep software talent and rapid development capability to further strengthen GM’s autonomous vehicle technology development. It will accelerate previously announced plans for on-demand fleets of autonomous vehicles.

Karl-Thomas Neumann is confident that driverless cars will soon be reality. (Photo: Opel)

2025AD: Opel is winning praise for its electric Ampera-e vehicle. What will the combination of autonomous driving and e-mobility mean for car emissions?

 

Neumann: We take our responsibility for the climate seriously and see electric mobility as an important part of the future of mobility. Electric cars are part of that effort as they help us further reduce our CO2-footprint.

 

We have announced that we will bring the game-changing Ampera-e battery electric car to market next year. With its range of more than 500 kilometers (based on NEDC), the car outperforms its closest segment rival currently on the road by at least 100 kilometers and will revolutionize electro-mobility. Our Ampera-e is not eco-luxury, not a gadget and not just a second car. Opel is showing that emissions free mobility is also achievable for a much broader audience thanks to the most innovative technology.

 

We believe the convergence of connectivity, ridesharing and autonomous vehicles will shape the future of personal mobility and see the future of personal mobility as connected, seamless and autonomous. The so called Robotaxis will dominate the streets in the future – and they will of course be electric.

 

 

2025AD: Should customers always have the choice whether they want to drive manually or be chauffeured?

 

Neumann: I expect that people will be able to decide whether they want to drive themselves or be chauffeured. For the majority of daily drives – such as the way to and from work for example – I believe that most people would be glad if they did not have to drive themselves and could benefit from autonomous driving. However, this could be very different during weekend trips in the summer. Î am convinced that driving a great car in a beautiful surrounding on our own is something we will be able to enjoy also in the future.

 

 

2025AD: Mr. Neumann, once cars drive fully autonomously, how will this change your personal life?

 

Neumann: Autonomous driving already has changed my life. Two years ago, I wouldn't have thought that today I would be of the opinion that the technology will catch on so quickly. When this vision becomes reality, it will also bring many other positive changes. And I am sure that my generation will be able to benefit from these advantages.

 

There will be less congestion. What luxury! Currently, commuters in cities like Istanbul spend 125 hours per year in traffic jams on average. Traffic will become a lot more efficient and safer in an autonomous world. And areas that are currently needed for parking in our city centers can be used for something else. Just think of what we can do with all the space that will be available: Parks, sports facilities, playschools! So I am really looking forward to these developments.

 

 

2025AD: Mr. Neumann, thank you very much for your insights!

 

 

 

ABOUT OUR EXPERT:

Dr. Karl-Thomas Neumann has been at the helm of automaker Opel since 2013. He was named Chairman of the Board of Adam Opel AG and President Europe effective March 1, 2013. Since July 1, 2014, Dr. Neumann has been Chairman of the Management Board of Opel Group GmbH. In addition, he is also General Motors Executive Vice President & President Europe as well as a member of the GM Executive Committe.

 

Dr. Neumann was previously with Volkswagen AG, where he was CEO and Vice President of Volkswagen Group China in Beijing from September 2010 to August 2012. Prior to that he held a number of management positions at Volkswagen, beginning in 1999 as Head of Research and Director of Electronics Strategy. From 2004 to 2009, Dr. Neumann was a member of the Executive Board at German automotive supplier Continental AG responsible for the Automotive Systems Division. From August 2008 to September 2009, he was Chairman of the Executive Board of Continental AG. In December 2009 he returned to Volkswagen AG and took over company-wide responsibility for electric propulsion.

 

Karl-Thomas Neumann is father of three children.

 

Is Opel an underrated player when it comes to autonomous driving? What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments section!

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