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  • Robert Bruce Adams

Detroit's Dilemma

I AM TOLD MY NEW CAR will soon not need me. The next generation of personal transportation is already introducing a new phenomenon, the "driverless vehicle.” I find this amazing, and for now, most unwelcomed. Simply, I believe the new technology is missing the mark.

This comes to me at the same time I am reading a biography about Henry Ford that tells of his early attempts at developing a “horseless carriage.” He called it a quadricycle. Its maiden voyage was on June 4, 1896 in downtown Detroit. Ford, and a cohort, took the quadricycle for an afternoon spin bouncing over the cobblestone streets on four bicycle tires powered by a 4 HP, 2-cylinder, gasoline engine. What a blast that must have been. Can you even imagine the excitement?

The quadricycle had some early issues but clearly the dawn of a new age had been revealed. The shed in which Ford built the vehicle had an opening that was too small, so framing materials, bricks and cement, had to be removed to get the contraption out the door. I find this hilarious, it reminds me of many projects I have worked on. The account of the ride was reported to be rather bumpy and noisy, matched only by the exhilaration of driving the darned thing. A couple of bolts became loose on its first outing. Oh, my. They were experiencing the effects of infrastructural issues, i.e. potholes, even before the turn of the century.

Ford had a dream of producing a reliable, low-cost, vehicle for the masses. It took a decade, and many missteps, to get him headed in the right direction. Most other automakers drifted toward the more elite class of customers and produced expensive and bulky early manifestations. The failure rate of these early manufacturers caused heads to spin; even Ford managed to go through a pair of corporate failures in the beginning.

New technology brings forth so many unknowns, and good fortune always needs to be in the formula. Henry Ford found such help with the launch of the Model T in 1908. He saw a different path and led his company in that momentous direction. A much lower cost and lighter weight vehicle won the hearts of America’s middle-class and in the process introduced the assembly-line to the world. His manufacturing brilliance came forth with its capability of producing unprecedented volumes to meet the spiraling demand for the Model T.

It changed the world.

My interest today over a hundred and twenty-five years later is in trying to understand the amalgamation of many new and independent technologies that seem to be coming together with such lightning speed to make way for the "driverless car." It hints at being a game changer. It is a unification of forces that had origins and applications outside of the automobile industry.

The new suppliers, armed with information and intellect, will find that they will be wed to vehicle platforms where they will efficiently monitor the automobile in its environment, safely directing the car to predetermined destinations without further human input. No longer will the driver be in charge, man is simply along for the ride. Billions of dollars are pouring in for “proof of concept,” and it appears the newer industry is solidly banking that greater Detroit will remain at the epicenter for the new world.

But hark, I think the nerds and the herds may be missing the real market.

I offer another avenue. To hell with tires, suspensions, body mass, and paved roads. They all are certainly mandatory given the direction the driverless car is heading. But, it is time to offer a real revolution, the air car. Personal transportation for people in sky lanes capable of supersonic speeds, or leisurely jaunts under the driver’s command with just a little help from technology. I have no idea about the power source, or how it will happen.

It is time to be as free as a bird and cease such myopic thinking. Please stop using century old vehicle architecture and investments, time to discover the new possibilities. Where there is a will there is a way. Missteps are welcomed.

Ask Henry Ford and Wilbur Wright.

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