Britain’s driverless car pilot schemes may have attracted the headlines, but many other aspects of automated driving have already inched out quietly onto our roads.
Sensors that alert us to nearby objects have been around for well over a decade. Several of today’s vehicles offer hands-free parallel parking, while others have introduced traffic jam assistance and adaptive cruise control, where the car controls your speed, braking, and, in some cases, your steering. Dramatic TV adverts demonstrate cars screeching to a halt thanks to automated braking.
More advanced intersection controls are on the way, enabling cars to sense road signs, traffic lights and approaching vehicles from any direction, and adjust speed accordingly.
The technology is in place for many aspects of a fully autonomous vehicle, and we’re now seeing real life testing. Volvo has announced that its Drive Me trial, involving 100 autonomous vehicles operated by regular commuters in Gothenburg, Sweden, will be completed by 2017, and electric carmaker Tesla is releasing an over-the-air upgrade, enabling its cars to auto steer on motorways.
In the commercial sector, a number of countries are testing ‘platoons’ of driverless trucks in convoy formation, travelling at the same speed, which could ultimately generate huge manpower savings for haulage companies.
Of all the potential benefits from driverless cars, perhaps the greatest is a reduction in accidents and associated fatalities and injuries. According to the most recent World Health Organization figures, around 1.25 million people a year die as a result of road accidents worldwide, with millions more injured. Most collisions are caused by human error, but an automated vehicle won’t fall asleep, lose concentration or fail to spot that small child crossing the street.
Freed from the need to drive, workers become productive passengers able to phone, email or work on the laptop, while those with more time on their hands can read, surf, watch their favourite film, listen to music or chat with friends. Social inclusion would also increase, opening up cars to the blind, disabled or elderly.
With a car of your choice just a click away, ownership levels may dramatically reduce, ushering in an era of sharing or renting. Rather than sitting in driveways or parking lots, cars could become roving taxis ready to transport anyone to any place at any time, with potential 24/7 utilisation. Such efficient usage would cut the number of vehicles and therefore reduce congestion and air pollution.
The combination of automated driving and connectivity will bring some incredible transformations. By connecting all vehicles to a grid, centralized traffic management will control flows and minimize jams, provide instant diversions in the event of accidents or road works, and release lanes to let emergency services pass through.
Connected cars could also become an extension of your home and office, acting as personal organisers that can sync with your diary to schedule appointments, and inform clients and friends of your whereabouts. Any concerns over sharing a vehicle could be partly allayed by instant personalisation for each passenger, such as screen shots of your family, and all your favourite music instantly available.
One of the big questions to be resolved is liability in event of a crash. A new legal framework will be needed, including a revamping of the entire insurance underwriting process, with liability shifting from individual car owners/users to manufacturers, software suppliers and possibly even to those running the roads or managing the traffic.
Consumers should be the main beneficiaries, with premiums coming down, especially as accidents will be far less frequent. Cars fitted with automatic emergency braking already entitle the policyholder to a cheaper policy, and the improvements in safety have led to calls to install this technology as standard on all new vehicles.
Although manufacturers are all taking part in the race for automation and connectivity, the destination is highly uncertain. Should autonomous car sharing take off in a big way, then consumers may want a choice of different brands, putting greater power in the hands of the rental/car share companies.
Mobility solutions, where a single provider meets all your transport needs, raise further questions over the position of the car in society. If a simple smartphone app can connect you to an integrated transport service covering road, rail, air and sea, then the (driverless) car is in danger of becoming just another, generic stage in the journey, rather than a cherished personal possession.
There is also no clear, dominant partner in the marriage between the technology and automotive industries. Whereas in the past, car owners were attracted by speed, performance and luxury, tomorrow’s owner/passenger – who, after all, will not be doing so much driving – may be more interested in the tech specs such as fast broadband and in-car entertainment. It is quite possible that today’s premium brands become mere vessels for the likes of Apple and Google.
As vehicles become more and more reliant on software, cyber security raises its ugly head. The recent case of hackers accessing the Jeep Renegade’s steering and braking systems forced a major product recall. Sadly, this will not be an isolated incident, and manufacturers face a constant battle to stay one step ahead of criminals and pranksters. Data security and privacy is another concern, both in terms of the personal information stored, and the constant tracking of the vehicle’s location.
Like many new technologies, autonomous driving tends to emerge initially in premium brands. With Britain home to many upmarket marques such as Jaguar Land Rover, Mini, Rolls Royce, Bentley, Aston Martin and McLaren, this country could be spearheading innovation in the field. Add to this the fact that Britain is currently the only country that allows testing of driverless cars on public roads nationwide, and there is a golden opportunity for the country to punch above its weight and become a global pioneer for autonomy.
Despite the apparent, relentless march towards automation, consumer acceptance of such vehicles is by no means guaranteed. Accidents can, and will, happen, due to technical glitches or malicious hacking, and the way that the industry responds will play a major part in determining the future for driverless cars. The story of GM crops is a sobering reminder that a technology favoured by scientists and economists can fall by the wayside in the face of damaging PR and public scepticism.
If society is to enjoy the safety, convenience and efficiencies that autonomous driving can bring, then automakers, technology firms, government, regulators and consumer groups need to produce measured responses to accidents and cyber crime, and keep in mind the huge benefits of this exciting technological development.John Leech, UK Head of Automotive, KPMG