How an ex-Converse CEO is transitioning Maserati to an electric future

Jumping from apparel to auto, Maserati’s global CEO Davide Grasso is optimistic about the transition to electric.

Article by Justin Jackie

Photography by Abbie Melle.The Australian launch event of Maserati’s first electrified car, the Ghibli GT. Photography by Abbie Melle.

Those lucky enough to have attended the Australian launch of Maserati’s first electrified car, the Ghibli GT, would be excused for feeling slightly conflicted about the experience. For many, our introduction to the Ghibli name was watching Alain Delon in a 1968 V8-powered Tipo AM115, blazing through the Côte d’Azur in the French cinema classic “La Piscine” (1969), and while the southern highlands of New South Wales isn’t quite the French Riviera, the new mild hybrid is even further removed from Giorgetto Giugiaro’s original fastback. This isn’t to say it isn’t an exquisite vehicle — on the contrary, it’s beautifully built and captivating to drive — it’s just that the new powertrain lacks the sensory symphony that’s synonymous with the Italian legend.

Through no fault of its own, the carmaker seems to have found itself in the midst of an automotive identity crisis, juggling the blood of its passionate, clamorous history with the fire of its whispering, electrified future. Of course, the technological disruption of electric powertrains isn’t unique to the Italian marque, but with a ledger full of world titles, theatrical engines and bespoke designs, Maserati faces a unique conundrum.

The company’s global CEO, Davide Grasso, was born and raised in Turin, Italy, and has spent the bulk of his career working for Nike, where he was eventually appointed the CEO of Converse. Speaking over the phone, he tells me: “The 20, 25 years spent with Nike can be summarised with one lesson: serve the consumer.” It’s a simple approach, though Grasso’s campaigns for Nike were anything but. Many credit him with bringing the basketball legend LeBron James on board as a brand ambassador and spearheading Nike Sportswear. He was also responsible for the “Write the Future” FIFA World Cup campaign. Of course, the jump from apparel to auto poses challenges, but Grasso brings to the role an understanding of how to manage a global icon. “The values of the brand are timeless and universal and can be played with,” he says. “However, we must respect Maserati in a way that the brand remains accepted by the market, the dealers and, at the end of the day, respected around the world by the customer.”

Grasso took on the role in 2019, not long before the launch of the MC20 supercar in Modena. “The MC20 is the first of its kind,” he says. “There is no other sports car that actually has been conceived to excel with both power frames [electric and internal combustion].” While many agree that the V6-powered MC20 is one of the more passionate releases to bear the famous Trident, it is an haute couture halo car as opposed to its ready-to-wear siblings, such as the Ghibli GT. Together with the release of the new Levante GT and forthcoming Grecale, these more attainable models raise the question: what makes a Maserati a Maserati?

“I can’t wait for you to try it,” Grasso says of the Grecale. “Particularly in this part of the world, you’ll be amazed how it has kept the distinctive traits of Maserati, including the sound and the performance elements. It is catapulting us into the future.” He is coy on details, but it’s clear that internal combustion engines and electrification will dance side by side for the next couple of years.

By 2025, it’s expected that all models will be offered with at least one type of electrified powertrain. Grasso acknowledges the transition to electric will be problematic, but he’s optimistic. “We have world-class, benchmark electrification technology which brings the brand to the top of the automotive world in the electrification and digitalised driving space,” he says. “There’s no question about it.”

Grasso spends the remaining minutes of the interview discussing sustainability projections, future models and Maserati’s 2023 Formula E debut. He recognises the importance of preserving the romantic vision of the melodic Maserati. “It really boils down to three things: innovation, performance and style,” he says. He assures me that car buyers still have a few more years to get hold of that glorious V6 Nettuno engine, and while powertrains will become hushed after that, Grasso is confident that both current and future electric models will evoke the nostalgic passion that’s been associated with Maserati for more than a century.

Ultimately, navigating the rough seas of electrification will require insight and forbearance. And while future buyers may not get the canorous catharsis of their dreams, they can bet that Grasso’s understanding of the brand will help preserve its sensorial past while inspiring drivers in a sustainable tomorrow.

This is an extract from an article that appears in print in our fifth edition, Page 53 of T Australia with the headline:
“Blood and Fire”
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The Unlikely Space Where Cars, Art and NFTs Collide

The current wave of limited-edition cars embellished by luminaries of the art world brings a new level of cultural cachet to the personal vehicle — whether it’s designed to be driven or simply flaunted on a screen.

Article by Philip King

Porsche’s Taycan gets an update with artwork by Nigel Sense. Photography courtesy Porsche.Porsche’s Taycan gets an update with artwork by Nigel Sense. Photography courtesy Porsche.

A stainless-steel facsimile of an inflatable bunny made history in 2019 when it fetched $US91 million — the most ever paid for a work by a living artist. “Rabbit”, a sculpture created by Jeff Koons three decades earlier, is rumoured to have gone to a billionaire hedge fund manager who now owns “one of the most iconic works of 20th-century art”, according to the auction house Christie’s.

The sale of “Rabbit” confirmed Koons’s reputation as one of the most controversial but bankable Pop artists of his generation. So perhaps it’s no surprise that he has been recruited by one of the car industry’s more visually ambitious badges, BMW, to gild its cultural credentials — and bottom line. The BMW 8 x Jeff Koons, which was unveiled earlier this year in Los Angeles, is a special edition of the M850i Gran Coupé luxury tourer, featuring elaborate paintwork created by Koons.

The artist says the collaboration turns the M850i into his “dream car”. The geometric patterns, he adds, help to create “a sense of forward movement, just as the ‘Pop!’ and vapour thrust elements do”. BMW’s chairman, Oliver Zipse, describes the car as a “rolling sculpture” that will grace museums and ordinary roads alike. With 11 colours, many applied by hand (although not by Koons himself), the special edition is a challenge for BMW’s paint specialists and just 99 will be made. A standard M850i Gran Coupé, with its 390kW 4.4-litre V8 engine, starts at $277,900. BMW is withholding price and delivery details for the 8 x Jeff Koons until mid-year (the only car signed by the artist was sold at a charity auction in April, fetching $US475,000 [about $AU627,400]).

It’s not the first time Koons has painted a BMW, because the brand has been attracting daubers for decades, inviting them to treat a car as a canvas. It started in 1975, when the American sculptor Alexander Calder dramatically recoloured a 3.0 CSL racer. The idea quickly caught on. In the years following, a string of luminaries including Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, David Hockney and two Australians — Michael Nelson Jagamarra and Ken Done — have created one-offs using various BMW models. Koons’s first BMW canvas, in 2010, was an M3 GT2, which competed in the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Jeff Koons leaves his mark on a BMW M850i Gran Coupé. Photography courtesy BMW.
Jeff Koons leaves his mark on a BMW M850i Gran Coupé. Photography courtesy BMW.

BMW’s most recent Art Car collaboration, with Cao Fei in 2017, was the first to be entirely digital, and since then the company has commissioned the Chinese multimedia artist to create original work for its cabins. Unveiled at Las Vegas’s Consumer Electronics Show in January, Digital Art Mode runs on the curved display in BMW’s latest electric cars: the i4 coupé and iX SUV. It features Fei’s “Quantum Garden”, described by the artist as “a poetic collection of universes, countless atoms, nebulae and thousands of fast-moving beams of light”. Digital Art Mode is expected to be available later this year.

Porsche is a relative latecomer to art cars (unless you count Janis Joplin’s psychedelic Porsche 356 from the 1960s, or Erwin Wurm’s Fat Car series, an example of which sits in Hobart’s MONA), but the Stuttgart-based brand has embraced the idea with enthusiasm since the late 1990s. Examples include a 911 turned into a swan by the Scottish artist Chris Labrooy to celebrate 20 years of Porsche in China this past November, and a 911 painted with Australian fauna by Biggibilla (Graham J Rennie) for the company’s Melbourne showroom back in 1998.

Last year, the Australian operation went one step further with a non-fungible token (NFT). These are blockchain proofs-of-ownership that enable artists to monetise digital works despite the fact they can be readily downloaded. Anyone can look, but there’s only one owner. Those who thought NFTs were just a fad were forced to rethink last March when the digital artist Beeple sold “Everydays: the First 5000 Days” for about $92.2 million, the third-highest price paid for a piece by a living artist.

The BMW M850i Gran Coupé collaboration with Jeff Koons. Photography courtesy BMW.
The BMW M850i Gran Coupé collaboration with Jeff Koons. Photography courtesy BMW.
Koons’s original BMW Art Car, an M3 GT2, released in 2010. Photography courtesy BMW.
Koons’s original BMW Art Car, an M3 GT2, released in 2010. Photography courtesy BMW.

Porsche decided an NFT was just the thing to celebrate 70 years in Australia and commissioned the Darwin-based artist Nigel Sense to design livery for its electric sedan, the Taycan. An actual Taycan was wrapped in the design then shot in an eco-sensitive location by the photographer Derek Swalwell. The producer and instrumentalist Gene Shill composed original music to accompany each of the three NFTs, using nothing more than the sounds of a Taycan power unit.

Sense says his work focuses on “the emotional feeling of movement going from one place to another, that excitement to see what’s over the horizon”. Porsche Australia’s CEO, Daniel Schmollinger, says the project chimes with the digitally advanced nature of the Taycan. “We wanted to celebrate this by pushing the boundaries of traditional artwork on cars, turning inspired artwork into a digital asset.”

Since NFTs are typically traded in a cryptocurrency, there are concerns about their environmental impact from the electricity used. Porsche says its NFTs are carbon-neutral thanks to its offsets program, while sale proceeds are donated to the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art. Shortly after their release, one image was snapped up by someone with the handle @dbarbe, who displays his NFT collection on the specialist website SuperRare, where he’s described as an “entrepreneur and investor; day trader, crypto and nft collector”. He paid list price (1 Ethereum, worth about $5,000 at the time). Of the three images, one remains unsold at the time of press.

NFTs are proving as popular with carmakers as traditional, physical artworks. They were quickly embraced by Formula 1 teams from McLaren to Honda, and then a cascade of others. Last year, Maserati sold its debut NFTs, Rolls-Royce released an animated NFT with the artist Mason London and Ferrari announced a partnership with the Swiss blockchain specialist Velas. Much of this will result in the digital equivalents of bedroom posters or swap cards, rather than art per se. But Lamborghini, in conjunction with the Swiss artist Fabian Oefner, has already hit the NFT jackpot with its first auction in February.

The work shows a Lamborghini Aventador Ultimae blasting off from Earth with a trail of disassembled parts. Titled “Space Time Memory”, it consists of five NFTs, each representing a moment separated by a few seconds. Lamborghini says that while the images appear to be computer-generated, Oefner took hundreds of pictures of individual components then carefully assembled them into the finished photos, each slightly different. The curvature of the earth was captured by a stratospheric weather balloon. Oefner describes it as an artificial memory “of a moment that never existed. The Ultimae is no longer a car. It has transformed into a rocket reaching for the stars.”

Each NFT is accessed by a Space Key, which contains carbon fibre that was sent to the International Space Station as part of a research project and is engraved with a unique QR code. “We pushed boundaries two and a half years ago with the joint research project in space,” says the CEO Stephan Winkelmann. “Now, entering the metaverse is again proof of Lamborghini always setting sail for new horizons.”

The auction in February ran for 75 hours and 50 minutes, the time it took Apollo 11 to leave Earth and enter the moon’s orbit en route to the first successful moon landing, and the top price was about $271,000. While that wouldn’t buy an actual Ultimae — you’d need at least $904,419 for the valedictory example of Lamborghini’s long-running V12 flagship — it does prove that when it comes to art, carmakers are on a mission.

This is an extract from an article that appears in print in our fifth edition, Page 50 of T Australia with the headline:
“Joy Ride”
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Unique Nautical-Themed Bentleys Released in Queensland

Four new vehicles draw inspiration from the combination of deep ocean blues, sharp white exteriors and elegant timbers of luxury yachts.

Article by T Australia

BentleyPhotography courtesy Bentley.

Mulliner, the bespoke and personalisation division of Bentley, is responsible for Bentleys that go beyond the option list. Their work ranges from simple personal touches like bespoke embroidery all the way to one-off fully coachbuilt Bentleys to unique designs.

Four new vehicles draw inspiration from the combination of deep ocean blues, sharp white exteriors and elegant timbers of luxury yachts. The bespoke collection features over 200,000 contrast stitches collectively, highlighting the ultimate expression of modern craftsmanship that Mulliner owns and pioneers in the luxury automotive sector.

Each Mulliner creation features a Ghost White Pearl exterior tying into the overarching nautical inspiration. In the interior, the bespoke colour split of Imperial Blue, Camel and Linen hides is paired with a Piano Linen finish to the fascia and door waistrails, which echo the iconic Breton stripe. Decked in open-pore straight grain light pinstripe veneer, the centre console is reminiscent of the resplendent timber decks of luxury yachts, while the alternating contrast diamond quilted stitching and camel seat piping accent the craftsmanship and skill that Mulliner is renowned for.

The unique commissions are now available in Bentley Brisbane and Gold Coast.

Maserati’s MC20 Cielo is a first-of-its-kind spyder

Maserati’s MC20 and MC20 Cielo provide two distinct models, both one of a kind yet united by the racing spirit, audacity and performance of genuine sports cars.

Article by T Australia

Maserati's MC20 Cielo. Photography courtesy Maserati.Maserati's MC20 Cielo. Photography courtesy Maserati.

Maserati’s MC20 Cielo announces its special features in its very name: MC stands for Maserati Corse (‘Racing’); 20 refers to 2020, the year that began the brand’s new era; and Cielo (‘sky’) highlights its devotion to driving in the great outdoors – all while maintaining all the prerogatives of the coupé.

The Cielo offers an all-new, immersive driving experience, courtesy of its electrochromic (smart glass) roof. Simply press a button and in only 12 seconds, the super sports car is transformed, opening the top up to the sky. The state-of-the-art Polymer-Dispersed Liquid Crystal (PDLC) technology lets you look up at the stars even when the top is on. It only takes a moment for the roof to become clear, at virtually any temperature, while the sound insulation keeps you cradled in the greatest comfort there is.

The interior of a MC20 Cielo, featuring the innovative smart glass roof. Photography courtesy Maserati.
The interior of a MC20 Cielo, featuring the innovative smart glass roof. Photography courtesy Maserati.

Everything remains functional, but the “wow” factor is not lost: the butterfly doors open up as a coup de théâtre and are designed to make it easier for the driver and passengers to get in and out despite the low floor. The uncompromising performance of the Nettuno engine, the Maserati-patented V6 twin-turbo petrol engine with technology derived from Formula 1, has the capability to unleash an extraordinary output of 630hp in 3000cc of displacement. The new Acquamarina colour is available as part of the Maserati Fuoriserie customisation programme. The three-layer paint is based on a racing-inspired grey, with an iridescent mica in aquamarine, and interacts with the light in a spirit of surprise, contemporaneity and lustre.

Maserati continues to produce a complete range of unique cars, immediately recognisable by their personality. Thanks to their style, technology and innately exclusive character, they delight the most discerning, demanding tastes and have always been a reference point for the global automotive industry.

The acceleration of electric vehicles

Globally, mandates are pushing major carmakers down the road to carbon neutrality — but it seems some are taking the scenic route.

Article by Philip King

Polestar PreceptPolestar’s Precept concept, soon to be realised as the all-electric Polestar 5, launching in 2024. Photography courtesy Polestar.

In line with the mood of the times, the car industry has agreed that it needs to get cracking on carbon neutrality. How it gets there, and its estimated time of arrival, depends on who is driving. Every auto badge has a different answer, and every answer has back-seat critics.

For example, the COP26 climate conference held in November of last year drew a commitment to making cars 100 per cent zero emission by 2035, with Ford, General Motors, Mercedes and Jaguar Land Rover among the signatories. Conspicuous by their absence were such market heavyweights as Hyundai, Volkswagen and Toyota, and Greenpeace was not alone in calling for more ambitious plans and earlier deadlines for phasing out internal combustion.

Toyota, in particular, was forced to defend its position after a Greenpeace scorecard of carmakers, released at the time of the conference, marked it dead last. The Japanese motoring giant says carbon is the enemy, not internal combustion, and points to biofuels, hydrogen and hybrids as alternative routes to neutrality.

According to this view, electric vehicles are necessary but not sufficient. Half of an EV’s lifecycle emissions come from building it in the first place, according to the International Energy Agency, whereas for combustion engine cars, it’s 20 per cent. So while zero-emission vehicles are a boon to cities, their eco-merit depends on how they perform cradle to grave.

Another non-signatory, the Volkswagen Group, is also committed to being “net carbon neutral by 2050 at the latest” but it won’t be taking its foot off the gas entirely. That’s because another issue for EVs is price. They are becoming more accessible, but for much of the planet they will remain beyond reach for some time. So the group’s Skoda division will continue to develop combustion cars for Southeast Asia, Latin America and other emerging markets, where demand for affordable petrol vehicles is expected to grow almost 60 per cent over the next 10 years. To offset this, Volkswagen’s Way to Zero strategy includes a checklist of initiatives to decarbonise, from powering factories with renewables to recycling batteries.

And when it comes to EVs, Volkswagen is the brightest spark in the room. It accounts for one-fifth of the half-trillion dollars earmarked for EV development to 2030 — easily the largest single commitment, according to Reuters. That has already propelled it into the top rank of heritage brands in the electric race, second only to the upstart Tesla. The latest addition to Volkswagen’s EV line-up is the ID.5, a coupe-style crossover, which features four-wheel drive, 220kW of power and a 490-kilometre range in top-flight GTX trim. As with its siblings, the ID.3 and ID.4, it’s taking the scenic route to Oz and won’t arrive before 2023.

The company’s spokesperson, Paul Pottinger, says other nations have a greater claim on the limited production. “There is no compelling reason to sell mass-market EVs here,” he says. “In Europe, demand outstrips supply.” Instead, the Cupra badge — an offshoot of Volkswagen’s Spanish subsidiary, SEAT — will spearhead the group’s mainstream electric offerings, with plug-in hybrids due by mid-year and a battery runabout, the Cupra Born, by year-end. Cupra Born will flout its Euro origins and a starting price below Tesla’s Model 3 of about $55,000.

Cupra Born
SEAT’s electric Cupra Born, arriving in Australia this year. Photography courtesy Cupra.

Only a handful of EVs come in under that price, but the Korean giant Hyundai offers two: the Ioniq Electric and the Kona. Its third, the appealingly angular Ioniq 5, is the first of the next generation and it sold out immediately when it arrived in Australia late last year despite the $71,900 sticker.

Hyundai also has a multipronged strategy for achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2045 “throughout our entire value chain” and believes “green hydrogen” is a vital part of the solution, especially for commercial vehicles. Hyundai’s premium badge, Genesis, will lead its charge to electrification and achieve carbon neutrality a decade earlier than the group as a whole. Genesis plans to release eight EVs by mid-decade, with three due in Australia this year. Two — the GV70 and G80 — are variants of internal combustion cars while the third — the GV60 — shares new battery-specific underpinnings with the Ioniq 5. It has similar midsize proportions but more rounded, muscular styling and a luxury cabin. Prices for the GV60 — the most affordable of the trio — start below $100K, and it comes as either a 168kW rear-wheel drive or with dual motors and all-wheel drive. Clever electronics mean it can refill in about 20 minutes from the fastest superchargers.

The Genesis vision for “sustainable luxury” is summed up by its striking X Concept, which was revealed in Los Angeles in March 2021. The company’s brand chief, Jay Chang, says it “embodies our brand’s progressive and audacious spirit”, with the letter “X” symbolising a “hidden hero”. Upcycled materials give the cabin a unique character and although — of course — it is electric, with its long bonnet and short rear, the grand tourer has the priapic proportions of a high-performance petrol car. Genesis has left us guessing whether the X Concept will be as powerful as it looks, or even if it will reach production. But a halo car helps Genesis stand out from the crowd of freshly minted luxury badges that are a feature of the EV revolution.

Another relative newbie is Polestar, which began life 25 years ago as a racing partner to Volvo. It recently morphed into a separate EV outfit that doubles down on its parent’s Scandi virtues, combining Swedish design with a proselytising zeal for climate neutrality. In the wake of COP26, the CEO of Polestar, Thomas Ingenlath, slammed the industry for doing too little, too late.

“Car companies are still talking about selling petrol and diesel cars until 2040,” Ingenlath says. “This is not the time for incremental change but radical change.” In contrast, his company aims to make “a truly climate neutral car by 2030, without relying on carbon offsetting”.

“Building and selling electric cars isn’t the end point, it is the beginning,” he says. “We will need at least as much attention on creating a clean supply chain and, ultimately, recycling.” Polestar uses blockchain to log its suppliers and publishes the CO2 footprint of its cars. Its call for greater industry transparency echoes Greenpeace’s complaints about “poor disclosure” of supplier emissions and insufficient detail about how carbon neutrality targets will be achieved.

Deliveries of Polestar 2, the brand’s debut in Australia, will begin in March. With a starting price of $59,900 for the 165kW single-motor variant, it’s a direct challenge to Tesla’s Model 3. It also has a hero car on the way: the Polestar 5 (previewed by the Precept concept), due in 2024. This electric grand tourer raises the bar on sustainable materials, featuring recycled wine cork in the seats and carpet woven from reclaimed fishing nets.

Whether battery power and repurposed PET bottles are the only way to reach carbon neutrality is a question that remains to be answered: it’s entirely possible that the industry has underestimated the scale of the challenge, as it did with autonomous vehicles. What is clear is that, like the attendees at COP27 in Egypt later this year, each carmaker is charting its own path and, naturally, there’s huge potential for a wrong turn en route.

A version of this article appears in print in our fifth edition, Page 52 of T Australia with the headline:
“Ready to Commit”
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Is it End of the Road for Hands-Free Cars?

Just a few years ago, the auto industry promised that autonomous cars were coming to a showroom near you. The problem, it seems, is that the human brain is smarter than anyone thought.

Article by Philip King

The Mercedes F 015 was conceived as an autonomous, interactive mobile living space. Photography courtesy of Mercedes Benz.

Whatever happened to the self-driving car? Go back four or five years and there was a chorus of executives confidently declaring that autonomous vehicles would be ready by now. Instead, the driverless dream has met a similar fate to the flying car: what was an appealing idea has stalled on the home straight, seemingly within sight of the finishing line.

The doubters emerged just before Covid-19. “The challenges are way bigger than anybody thought,” admitted Markus Schäfer, the research chief at Mercedes-Benz, in 2019. The Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak also changed his mind, saying the problems weren’t likely to be solved in his lifetime.

It turns out that even the worst driver reads the road in myriad subtle ways that artificial intelligence struggles to replicate. Overconfidence was a result of early wins. It’s relatively straightforward to program a car to drive itself on a clearly marked multilane highway in good weather, with the proviso the driver always be ready to take the wheel. Negotiating downtown Manhattan at rush hour in a blizzard is several orders of magnitude more difficult.

So for anyone wedded to the original vision of the autonomous vehicle — cars that can drive themselves anywhere at any time, without the need for human intervention — breath-holding is ill-advised. Optimists remain, but they have shifted the goalposts. The aim now is cars that can self-drive in prescribed geographical areas under specific conditions. The industry classifies full autonomy as “level 5” and at this stage most projects are struggling to achieve levels 3 or 4.

For years, the auto giants and tech titans behaved as if full autonomy was within their grasp, selling us a vision of the world in which cars lacked steering wheels and drivers would simply put their feet up. Some thought the underused asset in the driveway would no longer be needed at all, destined to be replaced by ride-sharing robo-taxis. Convenience was just part of the motivation. With self-driving cars, we were told, traffic pollution and congestion would become problems of the past. Most important of all, autonomous driving would radically reduce road accidents, the cause of about 1.35 million deaths globally each year, according to the World Health Organization (recent figures are likely to be closer to one million due to Covid-19). This is because the chief cause of accidents — the “nut behind the wheel” — would be replaced by computers that react more quickly and respond the same way time after time. Computers don’t speed, get distracted by Facebook or turn around to yell at the kids. Many forecasts suggested fatalities would drop by up to 90 per cent.

Over the past decade, autonomous driving has been as central to industry discussions as electric drivelines and connectivity, and just as ubiquitous in design studies. For much of that time, Mercedes- Benz was confident it would be first with the technology and the F 015 Luxury in Motion concept from six years ago embodies that thinking. A long, sleek silhouette houses a luxurious cabin that is accessed by saloon doors. All seats rotate so the four occupants can face one another, and they interact with the vehicle through gestures, eye-tracking and high-resolution touchscreens. Naturally, the vehicle has a zero-emission driveline. And while there is a steering wheel, the marketing blurb promises, “the future of driving means giving the customer the option to not have to drive at all”. It is an electronic tour de force, conceived at a time when the automotive industry could feel Silicon Valley breathing down its neck with rival self-driving projects and car software. This was Mercedes-Benz — the “inventor of the car” — asserting its position in the evolution of motoring. Volvo unveiled its offering, the 360c, in 2018.

Renault’s robo-fantasy, the EZ-Ultimo hotel limousine. Photography courtesy of Renault.

In common with most self-driving designs, the 360c has wheels positioned at its extremities to maximise cabin space. Volvo envisaged four possible interior configurations, including an office, lounge, entertainment space and full-length bed (Volvo says the sleeping cabin “allows you to enjoy premium comfort and peaceful travel through the night and wake up refreshed at your destination”).

Of course, these autonomous vehicles would have to share the road with traditional cars, which presented carmakers with a particular problem: how to interact in traffic without driver-to-driver eye contact. The solution involves sophisticated lighting built into the car’s exterior that signals the vehicle’s intentions to other road users (for example, the F 015 displays “Stop” or “Slow” on its rear panel). For its part, Volvo proposed a move towards a universal communication standard for automated vehicles.

At around the same time, Renault announced the EZ-Ultimo, the last of its trio of robo-vehicles “that explore tomorrow’s shared mobility”. It claims level 4 autonomy, which means the car has complete self-driving capability, as long as there are well-marked roads and highway infrastructure. The capacious cabin has room for three and is trimmed with wood, marble and leather. It is designed to fulfill the niche requirements of a hotel limousine, offering airport pick-ups, premium tours and shopping trips.

Features of these three concepts are echoed in virtually every one of the dozens of autonomous vehicle proposals released over the past few years. Granted, these concepts are at the sexy end of the scale; many are prosaic people movers, with shapes that owe more to the golf buggy than the conventional car. Much of the road-reading sensor technology has been developed by specialist suppliers and can be bought off the shelf, which has encouraged all sorts of startups and fringe players. And so robo-taxi proposals are ten a penny and they all look similar: glass cubes with sliding doors and small wheels at each corner. In May, the Russian lender SberBank revealed Flip, a six- seat “taxi of the future” that is typical of the genre.

The French company Navya has gone beyond the prototype, having sold about 200 self-steering minibuses in Europe, the United States and Japan since 2015. A couple of Navyas ply a route near Perth, though they are conceptually closer to trams than taxis.

The handful of robo-taxi schemes on the planet that actually operate on public roads look nothing like the concepts. In fact, they are standard cars disfigured by pods bristling with cameras, radar and lidar (Light Detection and Ranging, a key technology). There’s been a lot more talk than action, with the world’s first fee-charging, ride-hailing, open-to-the-public service beginning only in October last year. Operated by Waymo, a Google offshoot that has invested more than a decade and a small fortune in the technology, the service comprises a fleet of modified Chrysler Pacifica people movers that drives through the suburbs of Phoenix, Arizona. It is relatively unchallenging territory, but the cars still encounter conditions that leave them flummoxed, such as construction zones — and end up on YouTube.

The Volvo 360c, the cabin of which can be reconfigured as an office, lounge, media- or bedroom. Photography courtesy of Volvo.

Another major player is AutoX. Backed by the multinational Alibaba, AutoX launched a service, also using Chrysler Pacificas, in Shenzhen in January. As for the auto giants, General Motors is the closest to offering driverless ride-hailing, following a thumbs-up from regulators in June. Cruise, a company that is majority-owned by General Motors, will deploy adapted Chevrolet Bolts in San Francisco and has a dedicated robo-taxi, called Origin, due in 2023.

For private buyers, the building blocks of autonomy have been filtering onto car spec sheets for years, starting with anti-lock brakes and electronic stability control, and now extending to an alphabet soup of features that go under the general heading ADAS (Advanced Driver Assistance Systems). To avoid the dorky appendages of robo-taxis, sensors in mainstream cars are concealed by the front grille and are positioned in wing mirrors, bumpers and windscreen pods.These systems deliver great safety benefits, including the ability to warn a tired driver who strays from their lane, apply the brakes if they sense an imminent collision and carry out corrective or even avoidance steering. Many cars now have some self- steering ability that allows the driver to take their hands off the wheel for a short period — typically less than a minute.

But the technology is inching, rather than leaping, forward. For example, the new seventh- generation flagship Mercedes-Benz S-Class sedan, starting at $240,700, has an upgraded Drive Pilot system that offers conditional autonomy when traffic is backed up and in specific conditions on motorways (initially, this technology will only be available in Germany). Outside and in, it looks more like the previous model than the F 015, although the power of the silicon chip is felt to full effect in its comfort and convenience features, which gallop into the future.

Full autonomy is now a distant — and perhaps even unachievable — goal. In the meantime, today’s partially autonomous vehicles throw up challenges of their own. There’s a lot for the driver to learn about how these systems behave in the real world, and even for drivers who are familiar, there can be surprises. As high-profile accidents involving Teslas have shown, misunderstandings or overconfidence can have dire consequences. Partial autonomy requires as much alertness as none at all. So we’re in self-driving limbo and as promises drift into the future, drivers remain chained to the wheel.

A version of this article appears in print in our third edition, Page 60 of T Australia with the headline:
“End of the Road”
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