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Ex-GM vice chairman: Self-driving cars could spell death for brands, but not for Detroit industry

Ed Schipul

The Next Idea

It’s fair to say that the automobile has been central to the life of Bob Lutz. He’s 85 now, but before he was semi-retired he held top-tier positions at BMW, Ford, Chrysler and General Motors, where he was vice chairman.

He recently wrote an article for Automotive News with the striking headline, “Kiss the good times goodbye.” It’s about where the world of cars is headed, for better or worse. 

Here in Michigan, the auto industry is both our historic legacy and an area of substantial innovation, so Lutz joined The Next Idea to talk about the future — or demise — of cars as we know them.

Listen above for the full conversation, or read highlights below.

On the future of automobiles

Lutz’s article begins with the assertion that the end of the automotive era is upon us. “We’re now getting to the point where the automobile can’t fulfill its primary purpose anymore,” he said, “which is to move people from place to place on the surface of the Earth, easily and efficiently.” He pointed out that human-driven cars lead to a loss productivity, which provides an incentive to shift to autonomous cars. “We have so much traffic congestion that enormous amounts of time is being lost in all the major cities and urban conglomerations around the world in traffic.”

On why autonomous cars might not be so bad

Lutz acknowledges that the inevitable transition will be difficult for many drivers. “Is this a huge change? Yes! Is it hard for people to get used to? Yes! We had the same thing when we still had horses,” he said. But in high traffic areas, the autonomous cars, which he predicts won’t be owned by anyone but will be shared among people as a paid service, will help make transportation more efficient. “In a way it restricts some of the freedoms we’ve had up to now,” he said, “but on the other hand it opens up incredible new possibilities and mainly it’s gonna give everybody time back.”

Plus, for those that can’t drive, autonomous vehicles offer a glowing promise. “Autonomous vehicles that are completely safe are a boon for the elderly, for the handicapped,” Lutz said. “If you want to send your kids someplace you put them in an autonomous module and off they go.”

On how the shift will affect Michigan

Lutz has optimism for Detroit’s future. The end of the automotive era “does not necessarily spell death for Detroit as a manufacturing or engineering source because these modules are gonna evolve over time,” he said. Transportation companies will constantly add new demands on automobile manufacturers to add new features to cars. That, Lutz believes, will keep jobs going in Michigan as Detroit companies stay competitive.

The Next Idea is Michigan Radio’s project devoted to new innovations and ideas that will change our state.

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