Autonomous Driving Hype Now at ‘Peak Absurdity,’ Claims Auto Dealer Group Leader

By | October 10, 2018

The auto industry is a long way from seeing autonomous vehicles and ride-hailing companies put an end to traffic deaths and personal car ownership, according to one of the top U.S. auto dealers.

“We have reached peak absurdity on this topic,” Wes Lutz, the chairman of the National Automobile Dealers Association, said of driverless cars. “Self-driving vehicles are theoretically safer. But we don’t know if they are actually safer. And we don’t know because there just isn’t anywhere near enough data to prove it one way or another.”

Traditional auto dealers have been cast as Luddites in the shift to the autonomous age, when robo-taxis are expected to replace car ownership and put an end to the more than 37,000 highway deaths annually in the U.S. as precise robots replace distracted humans. In a speech to the Automotive Press Association in Detroit, Lutz called on the media to scrutinize claims about the technology’s potential against its costs and current capabilities.

Lutz cited a recent AAA study that found the annual cost of using a ride hailing service as a primary mode of transportation is $20,118, compared to a $10,049 yearly cost to own a car, including fuel, maintenance, repairs, insurance, license, registration, taxes and parking.

“This should have been front page news in Detroit, on Wall Street and in Silicon Valley,” he said in prepared remarks. “Why? Because it disproves one of the central pillars holding up the argument that people are going to stop buying cars, which is that it’s cheaper to use ride-hailing services.”

Lutz, who has a Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep and Ram dealership in Jackson, Michigan, welcomed semi-autonomous technology, such as automatic emergency braking, that he said is improving the performance of human driving. He suggested that’s where the billions being spent on driverless technology should be directed.

More Traffic

Lutz also cited recent research from New York City’s former deputy transportation commissioner Bruce Schaller, who found that Uber Technologies Inc. and Lyft Inc. increase traffic congestion by adding 2.8 new vehicles miles on the road for every one mile of personal driving they replaced.

“This is because the majority of people aren’t taking Uber and Lyft instead of driving themselves,” Lutz said. “They’re taking Uber and Lyft instead of using public transportation, biking or walking.”

Lutz encouraged the automotive media to challenge conventional wisdom, even when it sounds more exciting that the reality of about 17 million new cars sales in the U.S. annually.

“We are not only living in exciting times, but also in an era that rewards bold predictions more than gritty reality, especially when reality isn’t that exciting,” Lutz said. “But I don’t think it’s a bridge too far to expect reporting on our industry to always be rooted in the reality and facts as we know them today — not the spin that gets Wall Street all jazzed up.”

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