Written by Graham Cutbill-White
For most people, autonomous vehicles or self-driving vehicles as they’re more commonly known, are the future of cars and the automotive industry as a whole.
The next step in the evolution of motor vehicles is one that means we’re no longer in control as we move towards a world where we rely on machines and computers to do more and more of our everyday tasks.
But is this the world we want to be in? In a world without drivers, what does this mean for those of us who love driving? What does this mean for our roads and our safety? And when, like many film projectionists, factory workers and cashiers before us, will drivers become redundant?
While many have predicted it, are we really just a few years away from motorways packed with driverless cars, or is the idea of millions of autonomous vehicles on the roads more sci-fi fantasy than reality?
To know where we’re headed, we needed to know where we are now, what autonomous technology exists and what plans companies like Google, Tesla, and others have in store.
If you’re a lover of cars, or anything automotive, you can’t have missed the thousands of news stories about driverless cars and the future of driving having arrived. While it’s clear that we’re getting ahead of ourselves slightly, what is the current state of the autonomous motor industry and how far have we come?
In the past 60 years or so, we’ve had a handful of tests around the world, but it’s really been the last 5-10 years that have seen the most progress in the development and most importantly the testing of these new technologies.
Not only have we been testing vehicles that can drive without a human in control, but we’ve also seen more and more autonomous elements become a part of our everyday driving lives. Automatic parking, for example, has become standard on many high-end models including BMW and Mercedes.
Currently, a number of high-profile companies are conducting on-road tests. Waymo, a company owned by Google has already racked up over 5 million miles of testing on public roads in 24 US cities.
BMW, who hope to have a fully self-driving car in production by 2021, plans to double their testing fleet to around 80 autonomous vehicles and have pledged to carry out 155 million test miles, 12 million on real roads and the rest in a virtual environment which simulates millions of traffic scenarios.
Other manufacturers such as Tesla, Toyota, and the Renault-Nissan Alliance are at similar stages with production vehicles for most of them expected in 2020/2021.
While these levels of testing sound impressive, a 2016 study by RAND Corp. reported that to truly demonstrate the reliability of these sort of vehicles, and to show how they handle as many situations as possible, these companies would need hundreds of millions, if not hundreds of billions of test miles.
While a massive outlier in the testing process, the death of 49-year-old woman, who was hit by an autonomous Uber after it failed to stop, has sent shockwaves through the industry. It’s not known why the Uber vehicle didn’t stop or why the cars ‘safety driver’ failed to intervene.
The incident has led to Uber temporarily suspending their driverless vehicle programme and has raised serious concerns about the current state of the testing process. While many have argued that these new technologies would mean safer roads, the consequences of this accident will be far more scrutinized than any usual road traffic accident.
It appears that despite this tragic incident, testing will continue for the majority of manufacturers and many of them will find a home on British roads.
Britain is currently spending millions of pounds on research and development of driverless technologies and infrastructure as they look to attract those at the cutting edge of the industry.
From a British driver’s perspective, this year and the next few years will be much the same as the rest of the world as we continue to test on our roads. Currently confined to small pockets across the country, there is hope that 2019 will be the start of proper autonomous testing on British motorways.
As you can see we’re pretty much still in the wait and see part of the road to full-automation. It doesn’t quite look like driverless cars are ready and waiting to hit the roads but in the next few years expect the levels of automation to increase as the testing ramps up.
While completely driverless vehicles are exactly just around the corner, we can certainly detect that corner coming.
One of the biggest points of discussion during this and the next few phases of development and testing is that these cars are not fully autonomous, but those people testing the cars are not fully engaged.
There are currently 6 levels of automation as classified by automotive engineers group SAE International.
In simpler terms, Level 1 is known as hands-on, Level 2 – hands-off, Level 3 – eyes-off, Level 4 – mind-off and Level 5 – steering wheel optional
Most companies are testing at between the second and third levels, a stage at which despite a human being more involved in the process, can actually lead to more incidents like the one involving the Uber vehicle.
As noted in Car magazine – “Level 3 autonomous systems exist in a weird space in which drivers are required but can largely unnecessary. Therefore, if a driver is only needed for 20% of a Level 3 journey, it’s unlikely they’ll display the same level of alertness and vigilance if they were required, say, 90% of the time.”
Right now, is an exciting time in the history of driverless technology as we see the biggest technological steps taken, but it’s important to remember the reality of where we are and the existing limitations.
Before panicking and worrying about when the army of robot cars will take over the streets, it’s important to remember that we’re probably decades away from anything close to that.
What we’re not too far away from is the release of technology that will allow us to start developing the army of robot cars. In the next 5 years, we’re likely to see enormous amounts of money being spent on developing and improving the software needed for driverless vehicles.
As the software improves, more and more testing will need to be carried out as they look to refine the process and be able to produce a vehicle that’s able to perform in an almost unlimited set of circumstances.
Ford, Hyundai, Kia, Toyota and most other manufacturers plan to have Level 5, fully autonomous cars by 2020 and 2021 and be producing these vehicles soon after. While the idea of an autonomous vehicle going into production sounds impressive, these are more likely to be small fleets that can only be used in limited situations.
Given the massive expense that comes with testing and developing these vehicles, the cost of the first generation is reported to between $300,000 (£220,000) and $400,000, a price tag that means that most people and most businesses will be priced out of the market.
The price will obviously come down as technology evolves and it becomes quicker and easier to manufacture self-driving vehicles, but the likelihood is that the first experience we’ll have of autonomous vehicles will be by using ride-sharing companies like Uber and Lyft.
Unfortunately, it does appear that the first casualties of the growth of driverless cars will be in the delivery and taxiing industry.
Lift-share companies will see the opportunity to remove the need for a driver as an attractive prospect and delivery services like Domino’s have already begun testing human-less delivery services.
Beyond that, truck drivers and other long-distance drivers could see the human element of their industry phased out but again this is decades away.
For the rest of us, the sheer cost of these vehicles means that the majority of us will never be able to own a fully-autonomous car. What we will see however is driverless technology being phased in slowly and more and more parts of the vehicle become ‘smart’.
Similar technology, like enhanced cruise control, already exists on high-end luxury vehicles but as this technology becomes more affordable, it will hopefully become standard on ordinary models.
This will be most peoples first if not, the only experience of autonomous vehicles meanwhile truly driverless vehicles will be left to large business to buy and use commercially rather than for personal use.
The future of self-driving vehicles looks extremely promising as discussions move towards price and availability rather than technological possibilities. It is however important to temper expectations a little bit before the idea of millions of Knight Riders on the road gets out of hand.
It’s also incredibly important to consider what will happen to the millions of people who could be out of work in the next 20-30 years. It’s difficult to truly predict the scale of human redundancies but we do know that’s going to happen in the near future.
No one should be worrying about their job just yet, but companies and governments need to be starting to consider the impact that driverless vehicles will have on the working population.
As mentioned above, the impact on day-to-day drivers will be minimal for at least the next 30+ years but that doesn’t mean that the impact should be ignored.
The biggest impact of everyday driving will undoubtedly be the improved safety of roads filled with autonomous vehicles.
Despite the horrible accident involving the Uber vehicle, it’s clear to see that self-driving cars will be much safer than cars today with one consulting firm estimating that that widespread use of autonomous vehicles could “eliminate 90% of all auto accidents in the United States, prevent up to US$190 billion in damages and health-costs annually and save thousands of lives.”
By removing the human element of driving, you also remove the emotions, actions and delay in reactions that are the cause of the majority of accidents on roads today.
Last year it was reported that in 1.8 million testing miles, Google’s self-driving car was involved in only 13 accidents — all of which were caused by the other car.
Other manufacturers have shown similar safety records and as the technology improves, these safety rates will also improve.
The introduction of self-driving cars could have a huge positive impact on people who are currently unable to drive and therefore struggle to get around easily. Whether it’s because of age, wealth or ability, people with mobility issues could find it easier to get around, have better access to work and facilities and it would generally get more people.
It can also improve productivity in the workplace as fewer people would have to worry as much about commuting and the stresses that come with it.
It’s not exactly the most exciting aspects of talking about driverless vehicles but insurance and more specifically liability is a hugely important topic when discussing the future.
While no concrete plans have been set, conversations have been had around who would be ultimately responsible should something go wrong or if an accident were to happen.
It’s thought that the best practice would be for motor insurance to also cover product liability, in the same way you’d insure your phone or laptop. This means that should something go wrong with the software; the owner of the vehicle would be covered.
The introduction of mass autonomous vehicles could also greatly reduce the cost of motor insurance as insurance providers would no longer have to worry about the personal details of the vehicle owner. Your age or driving experience would be irrelevant if you’re no longer in total control of the car.
As noted on the Auto Express website, specialist broker Adrian Flux has announced that It will be launching a policy that would cover customers against hacking or the software failure of systems such as self-parking or adaptive cruise control.
As we’ve mentioned before, one of the biggest impacts will be on the employment of millions of workers who drive for a living. In the US alone is estimated that the first few generations of driverless vehicles could result in the loss of 2.6 million jobs.
Any country investing in autonomous technology has to seriously consider the impact this will have on its workforce and economy.
With more and more software being used in vehicles, you can bet that criminals will look for ways to hack into the vehicles and take control. This could be used to steal vehicles or even turn them into weapons used to crash into other vehicles or pedestrians on purpose.
Manufacturers are working hard to find and identify potential holes which hackers could expose. Many have even gone as far as to hire their own hackers to help them find and fix these security breaches.
It’s incredibly crucial for cybersecurity to be as high as possible as attacks on one or more vehicles could cause chaos on the roads and even cause accidents and serious injuries.
If in the near future, autonomous vehicles are used purely by ride-sharing companies, we could start to see a decline in car ownership as people opt for an automated option.
The appeal of the technology, as well as the potential savings you could make by not owning, insuring and maintaining a car, could have a huge impact on the number of cars which are required and therefore the profits made by the motor industry.
This could potentially result in the rapid decline of an entire industry and millions of more jobs.
It’s incredibly difficult to predict where the autonomous vehicles industry will be in 5 years, let alone 20. It’s very much a case of wait, see and hope for the best at this stage. Like the development of any new industry, it will be up to those responsible to define the rules and regulations surrounding driverless cars.
From a general public perspective, the next 10 to 20 years will be spent enjoying the idea of driverless cars and possibly share the road with them. Beyond that, we’re a long way away from any serious threat to a huge number of jobs but like everything in life, it’s always best to be prepared.