Driverless Cars – what might the future look like?

When I speak to my friends about driverless cars the immediate reaction is that these are 20 years off. But is that the case? Below I highlight a few areas of influence to the success of driverless cars. By no means is this meant to be an exhaustive review – just an attempt to highlight both how far we have come but also the types of road-blocks to any roll-out.

The roll out of a true driverless car is closer than we may think. In non-public spaces it has been happening for decades. Russia has been driving lunar rovers on the moon for decades (http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lunokhod_1)! Closer to home the large mining companies have already adopted autonomous trucks to move ore. Rio Tinto, for example, has over 50 such vehicles already in full commercial use within their mines. For Rio, implementing autonomous haulage means more material can be moved efficiently and safely, creating a direct increase in productivity.

On the cutting edge of consumer/public driving, companies like Google and Tesla are investing heavily in the concept and there are many trials underway but these are not yet on public roads used.   Many of the innovations we already see today in car safety are precursors or building blocks to creating a true driverless car – a number of models offer automatic braking to avoid crashes, lane change alarms, adaptive cruise control, parking assistance…etc. Every major car company has teams working on driverless cars and will be desperate to not miss the boat if the market takes off.

Tesla has just announced a software update to turn the Model S into a self-driving car (see http://gizmodo.com/your-tesla-is-about-to-become-autonomous-1692941193). While this has raised regulatory concerns it is a sign of what is to come.   Google is another pushing hard to bring a driverless car to the market and their director of Google’s self-drive car project, Chris Umson, has given Google a maximum 5-year window to have a driverless car operating (so he doesn’t have to teach his son to drive!) (http://www.bbc.com/news/technology-31931914)

Of course for driverless cars to be publically available there are many hurdles, some unique to the driverless car, others mirroring the uptake of any new technology.

Will a driverless car be safe?

Think about it – a suitable computer seeing in 360 degrees with near instantaneous reaction times to adjust speed/brakes/direction will be far more reliable than a sober well-rested human driver, let alone a tired person , or one affected by alcohol, or just inexperienced. Yes these cars will be safer. Tesla’s CEO, Elon Musk, goes so far as to think that it’ll be illegal for humans to drive in the future. Musk has been quoted saying that human drivers are “too dangerous,” and that autonomous cars will be infiltrating streets in no time, comparing the advent of autonomous cars taking over the streets to modern elevators replacing elevators that once needed an operator.

What other issues might affect the rollout of driverless cars?

What about car insurance?

In a 2014 US telephone survey by Insurance.com, over three-quarters of licensed drivers said they would at least consider buying a self-driving car, rising to 86% if car insurance were cheaper. But do we even need car insurance? In fact driverless cars could be a major disruptor to the insurance market and today many major insurers see driverless cars as a risk to their core business model.   Do we think these mega companies will just roll over and see their business damaged?   That is highly unlikely and I would expect them to fight hard to preserve their business model, be it by scare tactics, or lobbying government to force business practices that protect their revenue streams. Just another blocker to the inevitable rollout of this technology (http://www.liveinsurancenews.com/driverless-cars-could-be-a-risk-for-the-auto-insurance-sector/)

What happens to government speeding tickets and parking fines?

In Australia we spend almost $2 billion per annum on speeding tickets. Add parking fines and other driving infringements and this figure is truly a huge tax on drivers. With driverless cars there will be no speeding tickets, no dangerous driving fines, not even parking fines. All that revenue will disappear from government coffers. That should make everyone happy but I wonder – will the government like to see this “free” revenue disappear. What happens to all the police on traffic duty – are they reassigned or do we need less police? What about the countless employees at companies like Chubb and Serco who today support the government and councils with their fines processes?   Like the insurance industry mentioned above, could we see artificial blocks put up to preserve these revenues by discouraging driverless cars? I may be a cynic but these driver taxes are like a drug to government and it will be very hard for them to wean themselves off these free funds.   Lets hope we have some enlightened bureaucrats like in some other markets. In UK the government is spending big to encourage driverless car technologies and they view this area as a commercial opportunity, not just for the technology, but for the community. (http://www.gsma.com/connectedliving/news/chancellors-iot-pledge-part-of-bigger-global-trend/?utm_content=buffer03c8b&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer)

There are likely to be other unforeseen repercussions of a driverless car future

  • A&E in hospitals will actually not have massive waiting times as there are less vehicle based accidents resulting in hospitalization
  • Parking fines disappear– you can send your car out to the suburbs and instruct it to come and collect you when you are ready. Or you could park it in a spot and drive off if a parking inspector is seen! Knight Rider lives!
  • The 50’s are back – drink driving is no longer an issue and you can have that extra cocktail before dinner or a couple of glasses of sticky with dessert again so alcohol sales may improve
  • Uber dies off – who needs a service like Uber if your car can pick you up from a party when you are ready. Far more convenient that trying to book a car at midnight of a Friday!

In summary the technology to support driverless cars is here or will be ready within a few years and I believe most car brands will be ready.  The speed of any roll-out will depend on how various groups involved in the value chain support or block a rapid uptake, some are obvious like insurance companies, others less so, like police forces or state government finance ministers.

I haven’t even covered issues like IT security on driverless cars but we know this will be a key issue and perhaps is a topic for a future blog.

By Daryl Chambers, Director, M2M Connectivity

Google car
Google car
Tesla
Tesla
Russia's Lunokhod 1 from 1970
Russia’s Lunokhod 1 from 1970
Rio Tinto Autonomous Haulage Trucks
Rio Tinto Autonomous Haulage Truck

 

 

 

 

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