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Marchionne on robot cars - don’t believe the hype

Wednesday, 29th November, 2017 5:23pm

Fiat’s chief executive officer Sergio Marchionne has poured cold water on some of the claims being made for autonomous and self-driving cars.

With many car makers claiming that large-scale autonomy is just around the corner, but the tough-talking Fiat boss says that a lot of what’s being said is pie-in-the-sky stuff.

"Don't believe the fluff," said Marchionne in a conference call with market analysts as Fiat Chrysler Automobiles revealed its latest financial results. "I don't want to start chasing rainbows here, because if you chase rainbows you are going to fall off the cliff. The reality is that this is going to require a lot of discipline and a lot of technical know-how, which will take time. And it will take dedication and perfect execution to get to an answer."

Some would say, and indeed have said, that there’s a healthy dose of shadenfreude in Marchionne’s statement, as Fiat and Chrysler have both been apparently lagging behind in the development of self-driving tech and advanced driver assistance systems.

Marchionne rebuffed such claims, though, pointing out that Chrysler was working very closely with Google’s Waymo self-driving car programme, and was indeed building a specific run of its Pacifica MPV (a US-market only model) for Google. Indeed, the implication was that Fiat and Chrysler might be slightly closer to the hearth on self-driving tech than some others, having beaten the likes of Ford and GM to the Google deal.

Fiat has also signed a joint deal with BMW, Intel, and Intel’s autonomous car subsidiary, Mobileye, to develop the sensors, processors, and software that autonomous cars will need. Marchionne also pointed out that a lot of the companies pushing for autonomous vehicle development are small start-ups and that, statistically speaking, many of those are going to go to the wall long before autonomous cars become commonplace.

The criticism that Fiat is lagging behind on robotic car development is similar to that levelled at the company for not keeping up in the electric car race. Marchionne has previously pointed out that electric cars are hard to make money from, and his focus is building Fiat back up to a fully profitable car maker, before he is due to step down in two year’s time.

Indeed, instead of announcing any extra commitments on electric cars, as rivals have done, Fiat Chrysler is instead pushing ahead with (currently) profitable SUVs.

The company’s last quarter earnings were up 17 per cent, largely on the back of increased sales of SUV models such as the Maserati Levante and the new Jeep Compass. Alfa Romeo’s Stelvio SUV has gotten off to a good start in European sales too, and there’s a new Jeep Wrangler coming in the spring. Maserati and Alfa Romeo are both planning more SUV models, as is Fiat itself.

Marchionne’s skepticism of self-driving cars may be well-based. Although they are a hot-button topic at most motor shows, research by the American car market analysts Edmunds shows that buyers are still quite wary of this new level of technology.

24 per cent of the American car buyers it surveyed said that they would not pay any extra for low-level driver safety assistance systems such as blind-spot monitoring, or adaptive cruise control.

Some 55 per cent of buyers aged 45-54 said that they would not feel safe in an autnomous car, as compared to 35 per cent of millennials. Older buyers were even more resistant - 72 per cent of drivers aged 65 and over said that they would not feel safe in an autonomous car.

"Automakers may be adding these features onto their cars at breakneck speeds, but are consumers ready for them? The reaction is somewhat mixed. Awareness of these features is expected to grow over time, which should further stimulate demand," said the Edmunds report.

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