January is hype month in the auto industry.
Between CES and the Detroit auto show, we are subjected to an unending stream of big promises and bold pronouncements.
Amalgamated Motors will have 192 solar-powered models by 2194, and 107 percent of them will have Level 9 automation. They will design, program, build, sell and drive themselves!
Count on us to keep "news" like this in perspective. The relentless hype is good for selling clicks and shares of stock, perhaps, but it's bad for deepening the public's understanding of where technology is taking society.
On the other hand, hysteria about technology's march can be just as hyperbolic and just as deleterious.
Consider the ominous forecasts that the electric grid will collapse because of the onslaught of electric vehicles. That autonomous vehicles will be programmed to mow down pedestrians or drive off a cliff to spare a school bus. Or that some kind of regulator-driven, socialist ride-sharing paradise will destroy brands, wipe out personal ownership and eliminate the dealer. Or that China! China! China!
Somewhere in this gap between numbing hype and paralyzing paranoia, there exists a space for rational discussion about the ever-present need to make automobile transportation safer, cleaner, more accessible and more efficient. That discussion must encompass how technology will adapt to human emotions and expectations, and vice versa.
This is the dialogue the industry must engage in and lead — thoughtfully, humbly, immediately — lest the conversation keep veering into the absurd.
Scientists and engineers will have their say, and so will the bean counters.
But the challenges ahead will require the industry's key players to be more in touch with their customers' emotions than they are now and more articulate about the problems they're trying to solve.
There's work to be done by psychologists, anthropologists and the best communicators.
The progress the industry is contemplating can be transformational, no question. But the transformation can't just be technological.
Society must be along for the ride.