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What did this year’s Paris Auto Show tell us about how car company bosses see autonomous vehicles?

Ah Paris! The world’s auto industry CEOs (with a few notable exceptions) converged on the city of light last week for the press days of the biennial Mondial de l'Automobile. There was all the usual glamour and razzmatazz of course. But did they drop any clues about how their plans for driverless cars are shaping up, and when we can expect to see product in the showrooms?

Here are a few of the more interesting things we heard in and around the Porte de Versailles this year.

Audi

Audi has joined Volvo in declaring that the OEM must take full responsibility for any collisions or even fatalities caused by the Level 3 autonomous driving technology that will debut in next year’s all-new A8 limousine.

Board Member for Sales and Marketing Dr. Dietmar Voggenreiter said the company’s first “hands-off, eyes-off” L3 autonomous production car – the 2017 A8 – will be “almost infallible”.

Audi’s Dr. Dietmar Voggenreiter talks about highly assisted driving at the Paris Auto Show

“Next year we will open up the world of autonomous driving in a real way, with the new A8,” he said. “If you take over responsibility and allow the drivers to take their hands off, then you are responsible. This is the legal situation, it’s not big news. If we take the wheel and the driver is allowed to sit there and write emails, then we are responsible.”

“When you’re driving on a freeway in a normal urban situation at speeds of up to 65km/h, you’ll be able to take your hands off and the car will do the braking, the accelerating, the changing lanes, and you can really read a book or whatever you want to do.

“You can’t step away from the seat, but if the car detects a situation, like you’re coming into a construction zone, then it will ask you to take over again, but it will give you a 15 to 20-second warning of that.”

However, the German luxury car maker is so confident of its computer-contolled ‘Audi Intelligence’ driving tech that Dr. Voggenreiter said it may skip higher-speed Level 4 autonomy and go straight to Level 5, in which drivers will be able to take to the back seat and read, email or even sleep.

“In the long run, for sure, we will see Level 5, cars with no steering wheels and no pedals. This will come and we are working on this technology now. It’s not easy to predict whether it will be 2020, 2035 or 2040, but from a technology point of view, it will be possible.”

Toyota

Having been a self-declared autonomous vehicle sceptic as recently as 2014, Toyota President & CEO Akio Toyoda made a few revealing announcements at this year’s Mondial.

First off, he told reporters that Toyota is taking a safety-first view, concentrating hard on issues like how to keep occupants safe and how to manage the hand-off from car to driver and back. He told us that more testing will be needed before the company’s autonomous vehicles reach customers. 14.2 billion kilometers, or 8.8 billion miles to be precise. Toyoda also stressed that autonomy will be a big help to those with disabilities, the elderly, and others who wouldn't normally drive a car today.

The other interesting thing Toyoda did was to refer to the car driving itself as “chauffeur mode”. And, true-to-form for a notoriously keen driver and motorsport fanatic, he emphasised that Toyota is committed to keeping some semblance of excitement and pleasure alive in motoring, going as far as to ask, “if a car is not fun to drive, what's the point?” This is an attribute to look out for when the company's autonomous-capable cars start coming to market (as soon as those 14.2 billion KM are out the way).

General Motors

Ultra-precise mapping is one of the key enablers of fully autonomous driving.

General Motors told us that (in common with Nissan and VW) they are experimenting with a plan to pull video data captured by their customers’ vehicles using camera-based sensor systems from Israeli firm Mobileye. Could this potentially give the automaker an edge over the likes of Google in the acquisition of precision-mapping data?

GM’s Opel Ampera on display at the Paris Auto Show

Daimler

Daimler has set up a new division to push digital technologies, enabling services like ride-hailing and autonomous driving.

Speaking at the company’s press conference, Chief Executive Dieter Zetsche said: "connectivity, autonomous driving, sharing and electric drive systems - each of these four trends has the potential to turn our industry on its head. Yet the real revolution lies in intelligently linking the four trends."

Daimler is calling its new division CASE, as in Connected, Autonomous, car Sharing and Electric.

“To guarantee the logical fusion of all four future trends, we are bringing together the respective activities. We see the car transforming from a product into the ultimate platform”

Renault Nissan

Arguably the most aggressive of the mainstream OEMs when it comes to deployment of automated features, the Renault-Nissan alliance plans to launch at least 10 driverless cars by 2020.

However it seems the company is taking a pragmatic approach to real-world conditions in different global markets. CEO Carlos Ghosn told reporters autonomous cars will first hit the streets of nations where drivers are “disciplined” and “respect the rules.” In a (not so thinly) veiled stab at the “flexible” approaches to mapping and driving rules being taken in countries like Brazil and India, Mr. Ghosn said autonomous vehicles would remain off the menu there for now.

Renault Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn talks about driverless cars at the Paris Auto Show

“You need to have a mapping which is precise and reliable...You need to have also driving rules which are being respected, because autonomous cars respect the rules,” Ghosn said. “You know very well that in some cities in Brazil, this is a joke, you live in Brazil, I live in Brazil, at night cars don’t stop at the red light. Nobody stops.” Ghosn’s concerns about the adequacy of infrastructure, driver training and enforcement extended to other megacities including Mumbai.

He said he believed self-driving cars would come first “to very disciplined driving countries” like Japan, the United States, France or Germany.

“And then little by little we’re going to apply the technology for countries where things are a little bit more flexible.”

Volkswagen

On the eve of the show, Volkswagen bosses shared their view that stage-five autonomous cars are unlikely to happen for a number of years yet.

VW’s electric ID concept car, set to launch in 2020, certainly had a steering wheel - albeit one where, if you hold the badge in the center for 10 seconds, it retracts into the dashboard and control is handed to a bank of laser scanners, ultrasonic sensors, radar sensors, and cameras.

Volkswagen’s ID concept car with its retractable steering wheel is designed with autonomous driving in mind

“We are talking about autonomous driving in the future, with the end state of level-five autonomous driving, which might be happening in some years to come,” said sales and marketing chief Jürgen Stackmann.

“That’s a vision. That’s a dream that the car will do whatever it wants to do in any environment. But we all know there are several stages to get that far.”

He added that, while stage-five autonomous driving is “a nice vision”, lesser levels of automation, such as self-parking, will be helpful to customers and are achievable in the near future.

“You will have manual-driven cars for sure, as the standard option. But the architecture will be qualified for the highest levels of automation. That means looking into the steering system… it will be done in a way that all these kinds of automation are possible. Obviously, we think that the car will be highly automated, but in the first case, people want to have the driving controls available. So yes, physically connected from the first day.”

Ford Motor Co.

Interestingly, Ford decided to skip this year’s Paris auto show. Rumour has it that the blue oval plans its own, private auto show in Cologne in November this year where further updates on its autonomous ambitions will be given.

We already know that Ford intends to start selling driverless cars to the public by about 2025. Ford’s focus (no pun intended) is on lowering costs sufficiently to make AVs affordable to the mass market. In August Ford revealed plans to roll out autonomous taxis - with no steering wheel, gas or brake pedals - and to expand into the mobility business by providing bikes and shuttle services in major cities. CEO Mark Fields said that after starting with sales of robot taxis to ride-hailing services by 2021, “around mid-decade we’ll make vehicles available for people to purchase for themselves.”

“We believe this next decade is really going to be defined by the automation of the automobile. We’re dedicated to putting autonomous vehicles on the road for millions of people, not just those who can afford luxury cars.”

“We don’t expect to see fully autonomous vehicles for personal use for several years after they are first introduced”

In a philosophy shared by Alphabet's Google, Ford does not intend to concentrate on incremental autonomous systems that would occasionally require drivers to take the wheel, committing instead to a full self-driving car.

"We abandoned the stepping-stone approach," Fields said, saying there are too many risks involved in the safe "hand-over" of driving responsibility between car and driver.

Raj Nair, Ford’s Chief Technical Officer added that the company had decided to make the leap to full autonomy “because we have not found a technology that can ensure driver engagement when not in control”.

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles

Fiat Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne canceled his appearance at the Paris show this year and the company made few statements regarding its plans for automated vehicle offerings.

FCA’s partnership to build self-driving vans with Alphabet (Google) is seen by many analysts as de facto outsourcing, given the Italian automaker’s weak finances, limiting its ability to invest in its own software expertise.

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