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Take note, self-driving car skeptics: Detroit could field the first truly autonomous cars

Jan 13, 2018

The future arrived Friday, courtesy of General Motors.

Just in time for the Detroit auto show. Imagine that.

Yep, that alleged archetype of American industrial decline says it will have a fully self-driving car on the road next year.

Not in three years, like its rival Ford. Not in whenever, like Elon Musk and his Tesla. Next year.

But let’s be clear: This isn’t the end of road for anything. It’s barely the beginning of the revolution transforming the auto industry.

Credit Daniel Howes / Detroit News

What GM’s new Cruise AV, as they’re calling it, says about Detroit and its ability to navigate the future is... well, huge.

It shows capability, competence and grit. And it says Detroit’s not willing to cede a century of transportation leadership to software hotshots.

Should the Cruise AV hit the road, it would represent the “holy trinity” of mobility in a single package: an autonomous car, summoned by an on-demand ride-hailing service, delivered by an all-electric powertrain.

Welcome to the new reality — for Detroit’s auto show, for the region’s auto industry, and for its foreign competition. This year’s show will feature new, profit-rich pickup offerings from the Detroit Three and solid products from Volkswagen, Toyota and Nissan. But the business buzz will be all about mobility.

It’s the future. Enabling technology and the ability to process massive amounts of data are transforming the future of transportation, just as Henry Ford’s Model T once did.

The question is not whether cars and delivery vans will drive themselves. It’s how soon, and how quickly the public will adapt. It’s how successfully century-old automakers can compete in a rapidly evolving space and it's changing with Silicon Valley speed.

What about the future of the auto industry and its home in Detroit? It’s arguably brighter than it’s been in decades. That’s because mobility and self-driving car technology is finding its way into vehicles the Detroit industry has a century of experience building.

That counts for something. It’s also an enormous challenge.

This technology revolution is potentially offering automakers new revenue and profit streams. But ride-sharing and car-sharing threaten to undercut sales and weaken profit models rebuilt after the Great Recession.

That’s why the arrival of GM’s Cruise AV is so important.

It’s an automotive stake in the ground. It’s a play for a new revenue stream measured in trillions of dollars. It’s evidence that at least one of Detroit’s three can move with the speed of Silicon Valley.

Now, don’t think self-driving cars will be plying the roads in front of your house anytime real soon. Or delivering your UPS package for you.

Think San Francisco. Think using a smartphone app to order a driverless car to ferry you from your hotel to dinner. Think a compact car with no driver, no steering wheel and no pedals arriving for you.

It’s coming, ready or not. 

Daniel Howes is a columnist at The Detroit News. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.