There’s a scene in the X-Men film “Logan” that features self-driving trucks speeding ominously on the highway in both directions — giant tractor-trailers carrying cargo to points unknown.
It’s a vision of the future Andy Crews can imagine is just around the corner as technology catches up with a severe shortage of truck drivers. Autonomous trucks are already being tested in Florida and Texas.
As for the rest of us, expect to be behind the wheel for the immediate future, though with a lot of help from driver-assisted technology designed to improve safety. Google’s Waymo has already been testing self-driving vehicles on public roads in California and Arizona, but determining who is liable for damages when those vehicles crash is a question that faces years of regulatory scrutiny.
“Autonomous vehicles is not about the ability of the manufacturers to create an autonomous car,” said Crews, principal and CEO of AutoFair. “It really comes back down to the regulatory environment and the changes that happen in a major city on a daily basis that cannot be predicted by any satellites, robots, sensors.”
In the meantime, modern drivers are benefiting from soon-to-be standard features like lane departure, automatic tracking and automatic braking, he said.
Crews, who oversees eight dealerships in New Hampshire and Massachusetts, has seen significant changes in the industry ever since his arrival from St. Louis in 2006, including increasing interest in electric vehicles and a shift in how they are marketed. AutoFair Automotive Group includes Ford, Honda, Hyundai, Nissan, Subaru and Volkswagen.
“There’s no question that when you look at disruptors in the automotive industry, that Tesla woke up a lot of manufacturers,” Crews said during a recent interview at his office near the Manchester-Boston Regional Airport. “When you look at the electric vehicles, a lot of manufacturers had come into the marketplace the wrong way. They were coming in with a Prius, a Toyota. They were coming with the lowest economic scale and asking those individuals to pay a $4,000 to $5,000 premium in order to drive electric.”
Tesla targeted car buyers with deep pockets instead.
“Tesla came about it completely different: Let’s come in with a high-scale, high price-point product with the individuals who could afford to pay for the premium of electric and prove out that we can make this attractive and something that people would be interested in,” Crews said.
While sales of electric cars have increased, they’re expected to command only about 10 percent of the motor vehicle market over the next decade, he said.
“It’s not going to be the impact that people originally predicted,” said Crews, noting, however, that the growth of electric vehicles is expected to grow at a faster rate after the next decade.
The slower than expected adoption of electric vehicles is due in large part to fuel efficiency improvements in the naturally aspirated gasoline engine — prompted by rules set by the Environmental Protection Agency under President Barack Obama in 2012.
Fuel economy for new U.S. cars and trucks hit a record 24.7 miles per gallon in the 2016 model year, Reuters said last year, citing a federal report. Vehicles that exceed 40 miles per gallon have become commonplace in the industry.
The rise of crossover SUVs and the decline of sedans also has affected the wider adoption of electric vehicles.
“(SUVs) don’t have the same economics,” Crews said, noting that manufacturers are catching up with more all-electric and hybrid choices for SUV buyers.
AutoFair’s commanding share of the marketplace grew after the recession, when Crews added dealerships. When the economy soured, Crews spent time working on the operating structure of his stores, looking for efficiencies.
“There’s a saying in our business that a gross profit margin forgives a lot of sins. We were able to go back into our business and actually make it healthier because of 2008,” he said.
That prepared AutoFair for growth in 2010 and 2011.
“One thing I recognized was dealerships that had not taken that time to clean up their operations were still struggling,” Crews said. “As we were coming out and growing, there were some unique business opportunities for stores that were not growing at the same rate.”
Crews is ready for the next opportunity to add additional dealerships to AutoFair’s stable. While AutoFair has three locations in Massachusetts, he would prefer to focus on the Granite State.
“My priority would be in Southern New Hampshire. I still believe New Hampshire is an easier place to do business,” he said.
Mike Cote is the business editor of the New Hampshire Union Leader. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or (603) 206-7724.