Frankfurt self-driving cars, a shake-up at Tesla and GM's big claim

Audi Aicon

Weekly analysis, news and randomness from the future of transportation.

Editor's note: This article has been changed to correct the ownership of the Smart brand. 

The debate over how close we actually are to a self-driving future keeps coming up (and up and up). There are lots of skeptics who want to argue that that future is further away than we think.

But if you take a peek at the cars shown at the Frankfurt auto show this week, you'll see that automakers and suppliers are investing a lot of money into the technology. And since these big companies rarely gamble with r&d funds, it's clear they're betting that no matter how far away the self-driving future is, it'll be here eventually.

With no steering wheel and a spacious interior, the Audi Aicon concept car shows what a larger fully self-driving car could look like from the German automaker. In the current Audi A8L, the best seats are in the back, so owners who like to be chauffeured can enjoy the ride. But in the Aicon, the best seats are up front. The chauffeur will be the car itself, and the owners will get to take in a view of the road while they relax for long-haul rides.

The Smart Vision EQ is a concept by the Daimler-owned brand that is fully electric and autonomous and could be used in car-sharing fleets. And the Renault Symbioz concept  also electric and self-driving  is what the company says driverless cars could look like in 2030.

It's not entirely clear what skeptics who debate the timing of the advent of self-driving cars are trying to prove. Are they hoping, in 10 years, to pull up a link on their holographic smartphone thingamabob and say, "Aha! I told you so!" Are they trying to slow down development of the technology so we can continue investing in conventional cars? The ones that kill about 1.25 million people a year, according to the World Health Organization.

Self-driving cars are coming. We don't know exactly when, or if self-driving cars will ever be the only kind of car you can buy. But they are coming, so get ready.

And they will be a lot more fun than curmudgeonly skeptics think.

 Sharon Silke Carty

Joshua Brown was killed near Williston, Fla., when his Model S collided with a truck while it was engaged in the "Autopilot" mode. Photo credit: Reuters

What you need to know

Feds move on key self-driving car decisions The National Transportation Safety Board concluded its investigation into the May 2016 crash of Tesla owner Joshua Brown, who was killed after his Model S hit a truck while Autopilot was engaged. In a hearing, the NTSB found that Autopilot shared some responsibility for the collision, since the system was being used outside its capabilities.

The same day, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao released revised NHTSA guidelines for automated driving systems, first drafted under the Obama administration. The new guidance from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration suggests manufacturers can decide whether to submit safety assessments of their self-driving technology before testing on public roads. The original policy called for all companies to submit such assessments to the agency.

Finally, self-driving car legislation is being taken up in the U.S. Senate, beginning with testimony this week. One emerging issue: autonomous freight. The Teamsters union is mounting an aggressive push against including trucking in the final legislation.

Did General Motors really build the first self-driving car? Maybe? Kyle Vogt, CEO of GM's autonomous unit Cruise Automation, penned an essay this week claiming to have developed the first mass-producible self-driving car, based off the Chevrolet Bolt. "This isn't just a concept design," Vogt wrote. "It has airbags, crumple zones, and comfortable seats. It's assembled in a high-volume assembly plant capable of producing 100,000's of vehicles per year, and we'd like to keep that plant busy."

The car's not actually in production yet, but prototypes are being used for Cruise's internal ride-hailing program. The autonomous Bolt could be key to GM's plans for Maven — its other mobility-focused unit. Read more about the strategy here.

Waymo takes the title of conducting the first fully autonomous drive on public roads, which happened in the fall of 2015 in the company's little bubble Firefly car. But Waymo retired that model in June and said it is focusing on integrating its technology into cars such as the Chrysler Pacifica minivan.

Two intriguing developments in the ongoing Uber-Waymo litigation Court documents reveal that Anthony Levandowski may have been planning to lift Waymo's lidar secrets as early as 2012, when he incorporated an independent lidar startup named Odin Wave, later renamed Tyto, that may have been used to funnel patented tech to Uber. On Wednesday, a federal circuit judge ruled that Uber had to turn over its due diligence report on Otto, a self-driving truck company founded by Levandowski and acquired by Uber, which could shed light on how much Uber knew about Levandowski's alleged theft.


Diarmuid O'Connell, speaking on behalf of Tesla in Traverse City, Mich., in 2015. Photo credit: Greg Horvath

The revolving door​ continues Diarmuid O'Connell, Tesla's longtime VP of business development, has left the automaker. O'Connell had been with the company since 2006 and led Tesla's nationwide battle to open retail stores blocked by state franchise laws. Sally Yoo, Uber's chief legal officer, will reportedly make her exit very soon.

Finally, here's an introduction to Waymo CEO John Krafcik, the Detroit executive who drives a white 1990 Porsche 964 Targa and is an avid Automotive News reader.

The pains of the workplace white board.


A startup in Cambridge, Mass. is using computer vision to make meetings a little bit easier.

Heat-seeking tech gives self-driving cars better night vision.

Elon Musk tweeted a "tentative" date for the unveiling of the Tesla semitruck.

Samsung is doubling down on autonomous tech.

Tesla unlocked battery range on 60-kilowatt-hour vehicles to help Florida owners evacuate before Hurricane Irma.

Three security tips all startups should consider following.

Back at the robot ranch, companies take another step to remove farmers from farming.

The company behind Seat Man, which could be this year's geekiest automotive Halloween costume, has been revealed.

Photo credit: Screen grab

Apple may be quietly working on self-driving cars, but it's also showing revolutionary technology in other areas. Facebook promises it won't ever make a car powered by likes and friend requests.

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You can reach Sharon Silke Carty at



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