Who needs drivers? It’s all about autonomous cars at the Detroit auto show

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From an idea that seemed crazy just a couple of years ago, autonomous cars and related technologies have suddenly emerged as the prime focus of automotive activity, from Silicon Valley to Detroit to Tokyo and Beijing.

To get a sense of what’s behind the technology and how automakers, suppliers and startups are pushing into the brave new automotive world, theCUBE, SiliconANGLE Media’s mobile live streaming studio, trekked to Detroit this week for the 2017 North American International Auto Show, which runs through Jan. 22.

Jeff Frick, host of theCUBE, interviewed a wide range of executives and engineers working to speed the arrival of self-driving vehicles as well as other smart-car technologies and new forms of mobility. He talked about what he found in Detroit on the Silicon Valley Friday Show with SiliconANGLE Media co-founder and co-Chief Executive John Furrier.

“The entire talk of the show was not about zero to 60, was not headroom, was not the latest V-8 motors,” Frick said. “It was all about mobility, connected devices, autonomous vehicles.”

But it wasn’t all about automobile companies. IBM was there with its Watson artificial-intelligence system, which has a partnership with General Motors Corp.’s OnStar Corp. So was Nvidia Corp., whose graphics chips power the AI needed for autonomous vehicles.

But how quickly the autonomous vehicles will become common remains a point of intense debate, and not just because of the technologies that need to be developed and honed. Interaction with conventional vehicles, government regulations and traffic laws, and other factors need to be worked out as well. As a result, Furrier thinks it’s unlikely they will be common even a decade from now.

Frick’s a little more optimistic. One reason is the megatrend toward people moving to cities. “All you have to do is drive around at 2 in the morning and see all the wasted infrastructure,” he said. That’s why he also thinks many people simply won’t own cars, as is already the case in big cities such as New York.

“There will still be drivers, but there won’t be car owners,” Frick said. “If you want to drive to Carmel, you’ll take the car. But going to work? No. Going to the grocery store? It drops you off at the door, parks itself and picks you up when you’re done.”

Check out all theCUBE’s videos from the Detroit auto show:

Danny Shapiro, Nvidia’s senior director of automotive, talked about how the company’s graphics processing unit chips can also power the artificial intelligence needed for autonomous cars:

Jessica Robinson, director of city solutions at Ford, detailed how the automaker is investing in big data and analytics to aid “smart mobility” and manage the flow of traffic in megacities:

Grant Delgatty, co-founder and chief creative officer at URB-E, showed off the company’s $899 portable electric scooter that can travel up to 20 miles, potentially serving as some city dwellers’s main transit:

Cory Hohs, founder and chief executive of startup HAAS Inc., laid out his company’s creation of a mobile platform alerting drivers to emergency vehicles on the road:

Joanna Peña-Bickley, global chief creative officer at IBM iX (IBM Interactive Experience), talked about IBM’s and General Motors’ OnStar partnership, which could provide a kind of “cognitive co-pilot” for drivers:

Richard Hirschmann, CEO of North America at ThyssenKrupp Presta Steering, spoke about the research the company is doing on software-optimized steering, one reason he thinks conventional cars are far from obsolete:

Sachin Lulla, leader of  Watson IoT for Auto, shared how his group used new technology to deliver a fully functioning self-driving minibus to market in 12 weeks:

Photo courtesy of the North American International Auto Show