The automotive industry has come a long way since the first Ford Model T rolled off the production line in 1908. Innovation within the automotive sector has brought many technological advances, leading to safer, convenient and affordable drives. As the pace of innovation is speeding up in the early decades of the 21st century, the industry is on the cusp of another revolutionary change that will not only revolutionize the automotive industry but also disrupt other industries in its wake. This revolutionary change will begin with the advent of the ‘self-driving technology’ which has the potential to not just change the competitive landscape but also bring about large-scale changes in our societies.
An autonomous vehicle or simply a driverless vehicle is a car that performs all the driving functions by itself, that is without the need of a human driver. This is made possible by the developments made in the field of sensors, microprocessors, cameras, and artificial intelligence.
Though the idea of autonomous vehicles is creating rage, we are yet to see how the idea evolves and the way the general public respond to it. With the major automotive companies stepping into the field of autonomous vehicular technology, it has gone through a multitude of innovations and tests.
The “DARPA Grand Challenge” marks the first major long-distance competition for autonomous vehicles in 2004. After significant improvements in sensor and microprocessor technology, Google announced a self-driving technology company, Waymo in 2016. The self-driving car introduced by the company has been aggressively put to tests across multiple locations in real-world scenarios. The car has so far self-driven more than 10 million miles, and recently, the company launched a public trial of the autonomous car. Beside Waymo’s autonomous car, companies including Tesla and Uber have been testing their self-driving vehicle while other major automotive companies also aim to introduce their own brands of autonomous vehicles by 2025.
These developments, however, have been barred by the incidents like Google’s autonomous car accident in Mountain View, California or the accident initiated by Tesla Model X which saw the first known death caused by a self-driving car. These incidents have caused consumers to second guess the trust they have put into the self-driving vehicular technology.
To allow relevant industries to transform themselves parallel with the autonomous technology and ease the public in accepting the new technology, the automotive industry is approaching the shift in a phased manner with increasing level of automation over time.
Levels of Autonomy:
Technology purveyors like Google and auto manufacturers including Mercedes, Volvo, BMW, Tesla, and GM all plan to roll out their fully autonomous vehicles in stages. Before becoming completely driverless, vehicles will go through phases of being driver controlled and semi-autonomous where control will be switched between different modes of driving depending upon the conditions. The classification of levels as defined by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SEA) is based on six levels of automation, ranging from level 0 with no automation to level 5 with complete self-driving automation. These levels of automation are reproduced below.
The introduction of each level of automation has huge implications for the entire automotive ecosystem, the geopolitical system, and urban spaces. The technology also has huge economic, social and legal implications. The changes needed to support the autonomous vehicles will be akin to the change that took place when cars replaced horses and buggies in the earlier 20th century. Besides needing advanced infrastructure, we will need uniform standards and regulations, new insurance policies and legal framework to support this technology. Below, we discuss the economic, social and environmental ramifications of the technology.
Currently, insurance covers losses of accidents caused primarily by drivers, but the advent of the autonomous vehicle will shift the liability from drivers to the vehicle manufacturer and the network provider. Around 94 percent of the 1.3 million road fatalities caused every year to occur due to human error. These accidents in 2010 alone, according to NHTSA, cost around $242 billion in economic activity, in addition to the $57.6 billion in lost workplace productivity, and $594 billion due to loss of life and reduced quality of life due to injuries. Self-driving vehicles will eliminate the vast majority of vehicle crashes which would erase or at least, mitigate these costs. According to a report, it will lead to a fall in premiums, change the underwriting models or even eliminate the need for insurance for drivers.
The current ridesharing and taxi-hailing apps like Uber and Careem have created a lot of opportunities for business creation and jobs in the form of drivers. A rise in unemployment is bound to occur as these drivers become jobless and the businesses are rendered obsolete by the introduction of the autonomous technology. This loss in business and jobs in some sectors will, however, be counteracted by a host of other economic opportunities in the related sector.
The fundamental reason why all the major industries are backing the self-driving technology is that it offers a better and cleaner transportation ecosystem and a better human experience. The technology aims to reduce road congestion, offers safer transportation and increased mobility. The norm of someone driving themselves would cease to exist indicating a huge cultural change. People, including the handicapped and the elderly, will no more depend on drivers for their commute.
The autonomous technology promises to reduce the driving time by finding the quickest route and the extra time taken in search of parking. It will also discard pointless acceleration, honking, and unnecessary driving, hence, providing a greater deal of fuel efficiency and reduction in carbon emission. Due to reduced congestion and spaces for parking, additional roads need not be built which would give cities a public space dividend and more spaces for parks, jogging tracks, and other pro-environmental amenities.
The Bottom Line:
Self-driving vehicles have traversed millions of miles already though, in a controlled environment, the future of the technology looks very bright. However; like every technology, it will not go from rare to ubiquitous overnight. It might take a while for the general public to visit one of those free car valuation websites to sell their conventional car for an autonomous vehicle. Before this becomes a reality, laws related to the autonomous technology need to be devised, and questions regarding the liability for damage caused by a malfunctioning system in the car needs to be addressed.
Audrey Throne is a mother of a 3-year old and a professional blogger by choice. Throne is passionate about lifestyle, business, automotive, technology and management and blogs frequently on these topics.