Self-Driving Cars Are Closer Than You Think

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — Automakers aren’t alone in envisioning self-driving cars in the near future.

Alexa Sweeney Blackann, vice president, Sweeney Chevrolet Buick GMC, not only envisions it; she’s investing in future technicians to service the high-tech vehicles.

Realizing that future technicians will need to know more than how to use a wrench, she worked with partners on an educational model to train and retain young talent in the region.

Six students have graduated from the program that uses earn-as-you-learn incentives that many area companies are implementing to combat a shrinking skilled workforce. Sweeney also paid for tuition and books for the students who earned a two-year associate degree.

“We’re mindful of the training that the next generation of technicians and salespeople are going to need to meet the needs of the public,” Blackann says. “The next generation of technicians is almost like an IT professional. It’s less wrenching and less dirty work under the car and more software updates, calibration of vehicles and making sure the driving systems are maintained.”

The program is a partnership between the Mahoning County Career and Technical Center’s auto technology training program and Stark State College in North Canton where they earned a degree. 

MCCTC identified students with a willingness to learn and strong work ethics. Besides the cost of tuition, students receive pay for class time and are paired with an experienced mentor at the dealership throughout the program to learn on the job. Students commit to working at the dealership for a designated time after graduation. 

“It has helped shrink the learning curve,” Blackann says. “Sometimes it takes 20 years for a technician to become a master technician, and this shrinks that down. We’re seeing some real growth out of these kids and they’re interested.”

Dave Hobbs, senior field trainer and curriculum developer at Delphi Technologies Michigan, concurs that the average professional technician is behind in being educated to service high-tech vehicles.

Future skills are needed because autonomous vehicles aren’t far off. Already, new cars have adaptive cruise control with corrective lane steering, multiple cameras and autobraking as standard safety features.

Sweeney featured a Buick Envision with an advanced technology package at the Technology Takes the Wheel conference Nov. 13 at Youngstown State University.

“We brought a high-level vehicle to this event to show and get the public comfortable with features and benefits that are on current models, which are going to guide us into an autonomous future,” Blackann says. 

Nicholas Sugar, sales-product specialist, says needed skills for technicians involve radar-based technology, numerous cameras, switches and sensors, especially on cars with advanced packages, such as the Buick Envision.

Sugar says features include adaptive cruise control down to a stop, lane-centering steering and cameras in the front, back and side to monitor blind spots. 

The vehicle has the ability for pedestrian aversion that alerts the driver as well as the ability to bring the car to a complete stop, according to Sugar.

“Self-park technology has been coming along over last couple years,” Sugar says. “It’s exciting because you can park perpendicular and parallel on multiple sides of street that is selectable by the driver.”

Most models have standard safety features, such as adaptive cruise control with lane assist, blind-spot technology and cameras, Sugar says. But advanced packages on the Envision cost more.  

Nicholas Sugar, sales product specialist at Sweeney Chevrolet Buick GMC, sits behind the wheel of Buick Envision with self-parking capabilities.

The price of the Envision displayed at the conference is just shy of $50,000. Many of these features will come standard in the next year or two, Sugar predicts. Until then, tiered packages can be added after market, ranging in cost from $495 to $1,500.

“The adaptive cruise control with the radar system is the most expensive,” Sugar points out. “Cameras are more affordable but limited.”

An autonomous future includes redesigned space for serving cars. 

Mother Nature had a hand in the redesign of vehicle-service bays at Sweeney after a tornado in November 2017 caused extensive damage at the Boardman dealership. It forced the consolidation of Sweeney Buick GMC’s service department with Sweeney Chevrolet across the street. The new store is scheduled to open next March. 

Preparing for vehicles of the future that can drive themselves to the dealership for service while people are asleep is not far off in Blackann’s mind.

“We were mindful when designing it to accommodate for maybe two shifts in the future if we’re servicing cars through the middle of the night,“ she says. “How are we prepared with electrical systems and that kind of thing. A lot of thought went into it and we’re looking forward to the future.”

The Envision’s radar system needs regular calibration in the service/repair shops, according Hobbs. “Calibration needs at least 20 to 25 feet of space in front of the car, meaning repair shops are going to have to be physically redesigned,” he says. 

Hobbs used a video to demonstrate how one degree of disparity in the radar system can result in a pedestrian walking in the road to appear to be on the sidewalk. “But what if that one degree is on the other side of that?” he asked. “Now that person appears to be on the sidewalk, but is actually in the middle of the road.”

Jennifer Ryan, director of state relations for AAA, said during the conference that safety remains paramount as this technology moves forward. 

Last year there were 36,560 vehicle-related fatalities, which equates to one death every 14 minutes. “A lot of these deaths were due to human behavior,” Ryan said. She agrees that autonomous driving features will cause fewer accidents, but drivers still need to remain alert behind the wheel.

AAA also is calling for common terminology as brands currently have different names for different features. Educating customers can be challenging, Ryan noted.

As an example, adaptive cruise controls can either slow a vehicle or bring it to a stop depending on whether the vehicle has lane-departure or lane-centering steering. While the former alerts the driver, the latter automatically adjusts the vehicle based on road markings or other vehicles, or both. There also are cameras, which are different from upgraded radar systems. 

Dealing with the changes, updated features and definitions is a constant educational challenge not only for customers, but sales staff as well. GM offers product training and Sweeney sales staff train once or twice a month.

But being set up for an autonomous future is only one step. Sweeney Blackann wants to younger audiences who are looking at career paths to consider opportunities in the auto industry – both now and in the future.  

Copyright 2022 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.