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The next revolution in the auto industry

A Chevrolet Bolt EV electric vehicle is displayed at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, January 12, 2016. REUTERS/Mark Blinch

A Chevrolet Bolt EV electric vehicle Image: REUTERS/Mark Blinch

Mary Barra
Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, General Motors
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Automotive and New Mobility

Technological change rarely advances smoothly. It advances in pulses. In revolutions.

Telecommunications progressed from telegraph to telephone, from copper wires to fiber-optics, from analog to digital, from wireless to satellite. Photography changed from daguerreotypes to glass plates to film to digital, as well as from black and white to color.

This pattern holds true in virtually every field, and each pulse opens the door to new innovations that revolutionize industries and, sometimes, society itself.

Today, we are at the start of just such a revolution in the auto industry. It is part of the larger “fourth industrial revolution” that is the theme and focus of this year’s annual meeting of the World Economic Forum. In the auto industry, the revolution is being driven by the convergence of connectivity, electrification and changing customer needs. It is allowing automakers like GM to develop dramatically cleaner, safer, smarter and more energy-efficient vehicles for customers in every market around the world.

Your petrol-fueled car will become a thing of the past

We are moving from an industry that, for 100 years, has relied on vehicles that are stand-alone, mechanically controlled and petroleum-fueled to ones that will soon be interconnected, electronically controlled and fueled by a range of energy sources. I believe the auto industry will change more in the next five to 10 years than it has in the last 50, and this gives us the opportunity to make cars more capable, more sustainable and more exciting than ever before.

The electrification of the automobile is being enabled in part by breakthrough battery technologies that are helping us develop cars like the new Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid, which gets a combined city-highway fuel economy of 47 miles-per-gallon; the second-generation Chevrolet Volt, which offers a pure EV range of 53 miles and a gasoline equivalent of 106 MPG; and the recently introduced Chevrolet Bolt EV, a pure electric vehicle that gets more than 200 miles per charge.

Electrification is also at the root of many advances in vehicle safety. By integrating cameras, radars and sophisticated sensors, today’s cars offer an array of intelligent technologies like blind-spot detection, collision warning systems, adaptive cruise control and crash-imminent braking, which can stop your car automatically even when you don’t.

One of the most exciting advances in vehicle development is connectivity, thanks to technology like GM’s OnStar system. Since being introduced in 1996, OnStar has responded to more than 1 billion customer requests, from automatic crash response and stolen-vehicle recovery, to remote door unlock, vehicle diagnostics and more. By the end of this year, GM will have 12 million OnStar-connected vehicles on four continents.

When your car “talks to” other cars to avoid a crash

We have also pioneered 4G wireless connectivity. This allows cars to act as Wi-Fi hotspots that can connect up to seven devices at a time. They are, literally, their own rolling mobile devices. We have already put more than 2 million 4G-equipped vehicles on the road in Europe, Asia and North America. By 2020, we expect more than 75 percent of our global volume to be actively connected.

Connectivity gets more exciting when vehicles are connected with other vehicles and even the highways they travel. V2V, or vehicle-to-vehicle communication, allows cars to communicate with each other over a dedicated Wi-Fi band and share information about vehicle speed, direction of travel, traffic flow, and road and weather conditions.

If a car makes a sudden stop or is in danger of colliding with another vehicle, every car around it will know this within a fraction of a second. V2V can detect vehicles that are around corners, over hills or otherwise hidden from a driver’s view. Some systems will even take partial control of the brakes or steering to help a driver avoid a collision.

Saving 33,000 lives a year in the U.S. alone

The United Nations and World Health Organization report that auto accidents cost countries as much as 3 percent of gross national product every year. V2V will significantly reduce these costs. The U.S. Department of Transportation estimates that V2V could eliminate up to 80 percent of traffic accidents that now occur on U.S. roads – accidents that claimed nearly 33,000 lives in 2014.

The next step in connectivity is V2I, or vehicle-to-infrastructure communication. Urban traffic congestion already costs society billions of dollars in wasted fuel and productivity, and the problem is growing rapidly. The UN predicts that, by 2050, the world’s urban population will be 6.3 billion, up from 3.9 billion in 2014. V2I can help. When vehicles are connected to smart highways and traffic lights, then linked to highly accurate, real-time traffic updates and navigation systems, we can significantly reduce congestion and urban commute times, in addition to further improving vehicle safety.

The rapid advancement of intelligent and connected technologies is also providing the foundation for automated vehicles that make driving safer and easier. Cadillac, for example, is actively developing “Super Cruise,” a highly automated driving technology that enables hands-free driving on the highway, even in stop-and-go traffic.

In time, GM and others will introduce partially autonomous and, eventually, fully autonomous vehicles – cars that can drive themselves. At GM, we will begin testing a fleet of autonomous cars later this year on the campus of our Technology Center in Warren, Michigan.

The future of car-sharing

In addition to the many technological advances shaping today’s auto industry, there are also many social changes like urbanization, sustainability and the sharing economy that are changing the way customers interact with cars. At GM, we have launched ridesharing programs in Frankfurt, Shanghai and New York. Earlier this month, we announced a strategic alliance with Lyft, the fastest growing rideshare company in the U.S., to create an integrated network of on-demand autonomous vehicles. We believe the convergence of ridesharing and autonomous vehicles offers great opportunities to improve safety, reduce congestion and enhance transportation freedom for everyone, including the elderly and disabled.

The auto industry is changing faster today than it has in 100 years. Many facets of the traditional industry are being disrupted, and we at GM believe this creates exciting new opportunities. Rather than fear disruption, we plan to be lead it by developing cars that don’t crash or pollute, that reduce congestion and that keep us connected to the people, places and activities that are most important in our lives.

The auto industry will play an important part in the fourth industrial revolution. At GM, we look forward to working with others to lead and define the future of personal mobility.

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