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Carmakers Question The Future Of The Automobile, The Driver And The Industry

A BMW concept car imagines a world where the driver only occasionally takes the wheel.
Sonari Glinton
A BMW concept car imagines a world where the driver only occasionally takes the wheel.

One of the biggest questions around self-driving cars is about safety. In the blink of an eye would the vehicle, say, endanger the occupant to save another driver or pedestrian? There are any number of answers for a variety of scenarios. Mercedes-Benz, the world's oldest carmaker, says as its vehicles get smarter, it will program its self-driving models to make the lives of the occupants the priority.

Michael Taylor of Car and Driver, reporting from the Paris Auto Show, points out that who lives and who dies in a driverless car accident is something carmakers have avoided talking about until now.

"All of Mercedes-Benz's future Level 4 and Level 5 autonomous cars will prioritize saving the people they carry, according to Christoph von Hugo, the automaker's manager of driver assistance systems and active safety.

"If you know you can save at least one person, at least save that one. Save the one in the car," Hugo said in an interview at the Paris auto show. "If all you know for sure is that one death can be prevented, then that's your first priority."

Regulators and carmakers in the U.S. have put a focus on safety. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is spearheading a government effort to get American traffic fatalities to zero. NHTSA and the Department of Transportation have said the federal government will have a role in regulating the code that operates self-driving cars.

A futuristic Rolls Royce, imagines fun and luxury, for the idly rich in the future.
Sonari Glinton / NPR
A futuristic Rolls Royce, imagines fun and luxury, for the idly rich in the future.

Meanwhile, BMW has been touring the world celebrating it's 100th anniversary and what it calls its Next 100 years. Essentially it's a show that makes the case for BMW's existence in the future. The company showcases a vehicle that points to the future for each division.

"We're not only good at making things, we're also good at creating emotions," says Ludwig Willisch, BMW's North American CEO. "There's no reason to believe that people don't want emotions in the future."

Willisch acknowledges that the future he describes is far beyond the scope of a traditional automaker today. "We have to make sure that everybody understands, including our shareholders, our stakeholders, that there is a business proposition even in 10, 20, 30, 40, 50, 100 years out," he tells NPR.

Willisch says creating an emotional connection for consumers is what his brand does. For a car company to succeed, it has to capture the feeling and emotion of being on the road. "The emotion won't change," says Willisch. "It still will be about using a BMW and having fun ... whatever that will be in 100 years, but this is our business model. And I'm sure it will prevail."

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Sonari Glinton is a NPR Business Desk Correspondent based at our NPR West bureau. He covers the auto industry, consumer goods, and consumer behavior, as well as marketing and advertising for NPR and Planet Money.
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