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IAA 2017: autonomous driving is waiting for take-off

At the New Mobility World outdoor parcours, visitors can test future mobility. (Photo: IAA)

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Angelo Rychel
Angelo Rychel
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It’s almost a consensus: future mobility will be shared, autonomous, connected and electric. But at IAA 2017, the industry is still mostly showcasing cars from the past. The disruptive ideas are out there – when will they take center stage?

Rupert Stadler did his best to convey a spirit of revolution. From the stage of the IAA’s New Mobility World, he laid out his vision for the city of tomorrow, boldly calling it “The new Atlantis”. Stadler described a smart city with clean air, no traffic jams and zero accidents – where all cars are connected, autonomous and of course, electric. Stadler’s message seemed clear: we are at the dawn of a new era.

And then, just before he left the stage, there was one more thing he had to add. “86 percent of consumers still want to own a car,” he said, citing an IBM study. It sounded a bit like: Don’t worry, there might be a revolution, but in the end, not much is going to change. And off he went.

In a way, Stadler’s presentation was symbolic for this year’s International Motor Show as a whole. Yes, there are creative proposals for autonomous and connected driving. Innovative mobility providers and new players from the world of IT are entering the field. But these ideas only play a supporting role, being mostly delegated to the New Mobility World up in hall 3.1 – the IAA innovation hub only fills a small part of the exhibition grounds. At the carmakers’ booths, you could hardly tell the difference from IAA 2015. Size still matters. And horse power does too. The focus still lies on SUVs and cars with combustion engines.

Consumers are waiting for autonomous cars

Not everyone is happy with that. “The average speed in Tokyo is currently 15 kilometers per hour,” said Oliver Bahns, Senior Vice President Connected Mobility, T-Systems, referring to the problem of gridlocked megacities. “A sports car doesn’t get you somewhere any faster.” He called the New Mobility World the right approach. “But it hasn’t taken center stage yet. We are not leveraging our full potential.”

Audi's level 5 concept car Aicon (Photo: Audi)

Admittedly, the number of electric models showcased at the fair has increased, as well as autonomous concept cars. Audi, for instance, presented the Aicon – a luxurious Level 5 car that ditches steering wheel and pedals and relies heavily on artificial intelligence to offer services to the passenger. What services? That doesn’t become tangible for visitors. They can enter the static car and marvel at the lounge atmosphere and swiveling seats. But what this vehicle might be capable of remains unclear. Oliver Bahns had a straightforward opinion on fancy concept vehicles as well: “The value to the consumer is close to zero right now. It’s time to really roll out solutions, not another pilot.”

The good news for the industry: consumers seem to be embracing autonomous driving. In a McKinsey survey in China, USA and Germany, 70% of consumers said governments should legalize autonomous driving. 65% would even switch from their current car brand to another if it offered better autonomous driving functionalities. And they would be willing to pay more for those features – 3,400 U.S. dollars on average. But high acceptance comes with high expectations: consumers expect level 5 vehicles to be on the road by 2022.

Artificial intelligence: The need to cooperate

Most experts at New Mobility World agreed that this might be unrealistic, considering unsolved technological and regulatory issues. A huge hurdle McKinsey has identified: the necessary access to artificial intelligence technology and know-how. Since 2014, investments in that field have totaled to more than 40 billion U.S. dollars. “The whole thing is too expensive for individual OEMs,” said Matthias Kässer, partner at McKinsey. His prediction: we are going to see more collaborations – like the one BMW entered with Intel and Mobileye.

The New Mobility World takes place in Hall 3.1 at IAA. (Photo: IAA)

Collaborations, partnerships, alliances – those are the true buzzwords at New Mobility World. Because those bold visions of smart and connected cities – you know, the ones where vehicles talk to other vehicles, pedestrians and the infrastructure and in doing so eliminate accidents and optimize the flow of traffic – they will only become true if all parties share one of their biggest treasures: data. “OEMs spend more time collecting data than using it,” said John Kitchingman, Global Sales Leader Automotive at IBM. “Their best chance against the threat from Google, Baidu and the likes is to collaborate.” Which is easier said than done. After all, OEMs want to use the data they collect to offer customized mobility services – and differentiate themselves from competitors. But avoiding cooperation could seriously halt the mass deployment of fully autonomous vehicles.

The consumer will be king of the road

In its best moments, the New Mobility World is painting a picture of how fundamentally different urban mobility may look in just a couple of years. One such moment was when experts of BlaBlaCar (ride sharing), moovel (mobility app), Gett (ride hailing) and RideCell (car sharing) discussed their visions for shared, autonomous and connected driving. They might differ in their business focus, but they all seemed to agree on one thing: the user will be king. “With his smartphone, he can pick the optimal way to get from A to B,” said Randolph Wörl from moovel. “Does optimal mean the shortest way, the cheapest way or the most comfortable way? It’s the user’s choice.” James Cowen, Director at Gett, added that the user will not tolerate substantial waiting time: “Waiting 30 minutes is not on demand. Customers will not wait longer than two or three minutes.”

New Mobility World is the place for debates on the future of driving. (Photo: IAA)

At the end of the day, one leaves with the feeling to have witnessed the last “old school” IAA. It’s somewhat understandable that carmakers still showcase their diesel cars and large SUVs. After all, that’s what they make money on – money they will need to finance the inevitable mobility upheaval. The new mobility concepts are shaping up to be less profitable than selling combustion engines – Daimler has already announced a 4 billion Euros cost reduction program until 2025. Moreover, without the (clean) diesel engines, complying with the mandatory CO2 limits will be extremely difficult.

It is a difficult balancing act – one that IAA is approaching more resolutely than some of its counterparts. Take NAIAS in Detroit which only this year started to provide a relatively small sector for its innovation area “AutoMobili-D”. In any case, IAA visitors seemed to be happy: They still flocked to the BMW X7s and the Mercedes AMG GTs and were not bothered by new mobility concepts. Because at IAA 2017, apart from some silvery concept cars, intelligent mobility and “sexy” mobility were still two separate entities for the most part. In 2019, it will be interesting to see whether the industry will be able to step out of its comfort zone.

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Angelo Rychel
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