3:00 pm EST – Performance Automobility: The Power of the Aftermarket

It’ll be best for optimizing autonomous vehicles if aftermarket companies can participate in the formation of the technology platforms, products and services that will comprise the future of the car industry, AutoMobili-D panelists agreed at the 2017 North American International Auto Show today.

John Waraniak, vice president of vehicle technology for SEMA, the aftermarket-parts and services organization, said that today is “a golden age of new performance and mobility,” pointing out that “racing and mobility go hand in hand.” He said that the notion of autonomous driving will not shut out but rather will enhance the aftermarket and racing aspects of the auto business and that new racing circuits such as Formula E already are proving this point.

The potential significance of aftermarket companies to the self-driving race was illustrated by a video shown by Otto, a San Francisco-based startup that retrofits trucks for autonomous performance. It showed a 125-mile “beer run” by an Otto-equipped semi-truck with no driver in the driver’s seat, which delivered a load of Budweiser by departing a station in Ft. Collins, Colo., then driving through metro Denver, on its way to delivery to the south in Colorado Springs, Colo.

“We were able to achieve that from nothing in nine months,” said Don Burnette, co-founder of Otto. “And that came from our ability to take off-the-shelf components and iterate rapidly and figure out what works and doesn’t. So it’s the power of the aftermarket that allows companies like Otto to make these kinds of achievements in time frame we’re talking about.”

David Strickland, a safety consultant who formerly headed the federal government’s highway-safety agency, said that, indeed, “Regulators want self-driving innovations coming from all quarters including people from the aftermarket who are innovators coming into the marketplace. Not all of the greatest ideas will come out of Google … Sometimes it’s 3 or 4 people coming out of Carnegie-Mellon University with their own project.”

Kevin Kerrigan, senior vice president of the automotive office of the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, noted how the state is providing more road miles and dedicated facilities for autonomous-feature testing not only for OEMs but also for aftermarket companies.

And Elaina Farnsworth, CEO and founder of Mobile Comply, a talent-recruiting startup, noted that aftermarket companies face a particular struggle in recruiting technical talent against industry giants. “In the aftermarket today, we have the problem where the Googles and Ubers are fighting with the small one- and two-folks shops who are angling for the same talent. And we already have a deficit before that.”