Driverless cars: take your hands off the wheel

Ford has thrown down the gauntlet to Apple and Google, as well as rival car manufacturers, by announcing that it will have high-volume, fully-autonomous vehicles in commercial operation by 2021.

The impetus behind driverless cars is to make driving easier and safer, while reducing traffic congestion. In addition, the aged or visually impaired may not have to give up their independence, and commuting time behind the wheel could be used to do something more useful than watching the road.

Google first started testing its driverless car using a retrofitted Toyota Prius back in 2009. It now has a test fleet including both modified Lexus SUVs and prototype vehicles, built from the ground up to be self-driving.  These are being tested on highways in the US.  

Apple recently invested a staggering $1 billion in Chinese ride sharing company DiDi, which is believed to bolster its driverless car strategy. Apple has kept fairly quiet about its plans so far, but Chinese government officials recently announced a draft proposal that would enable driverless cars to be on the country’s highways by 2020.

Apple isn’t the only company investing heavily in ride sharing.  General Motors announced its intention to invest $500 million in Lyft earlier this year to create an integrated network of on-demand autonomous cars.  Lyft already has plans to put a fleet of driverless taxis in several US cities.
Uber has linked up with Volvo to develop driverless cars. Uber is expecting to launch a self-drive taxi pilot in Pittsburgh for customers within the coming weeks.

Ford’s driverless cars are also being specifically targeted at ride sharing services like Uber and Lyft.  Driverless taxis can cut costs for taxi companies as they don’t have to employ drivers.  Ride sharing also helps to expand the potential market by cutting the cost of personally owning a car.

“The next decade will be defined by automation of the automobile, and we see autonomous vehicles as having as significant an impact on society as Ford’s moving assembly line did 100 years ago,” explained Mark Fields, Ford president and CEO. “We’re dedicated to putting on the road an autonomous vehicle that can improve safety and solve social and environmental challenges for millions of people – not just those who can afford luxury vehicles.”

Meanwhile Audi is advancing the development of ‘Jack’, the nickname it has given to its Audi A7 piloted driving concept technology program. Audi is training ‘Jack’ to autonomously perform all of the driving maneuvers expected on a highway.  The car maker is planning to include technology in cars later this year that will let drivers know when traffic lights are about to change.


Consumer back driverless cars

Growing consumer interest in driverless cars could see the industry hit $42 billion by 2025, according to the Boston Consulting Group (BCG).  In a recent survey of US drivers by BCG, 55 per cent of respondents said they were very likely to buy a partially self-drive car within the next five years, 44 per cent said they would probably buy a fully-self driving car within the next ten years. BCG, however, expects Japan and Western Europe to be the fastest adopters of self-drive based on their experience with adaptive cruise control.

Car makers are acquiring or investing heavily in technology companies in the rush to make driverless cars a reality on the roads. 

Ford has invested in Velodyne, with the aim of quickly mass producing a more affordable automotive LiDAR sensor and Civil Maps, to further develop high-resolution 3D mapping capabilities. It has an exclusive agreement with Nirenberg Neuroscience LLC for a machine visioning platform that can perform navigation and object recognition and as acquired Israel-based computer and vison learning company SAIPS for its artificial intelligence expertise.

Fiat Chrysler has joined forces with Google parent Alphabet Inc to integrate Alphabet computers, sensors and software into a test fleet of driverless Chrysler minivans. BMW has got together with Intel and Mobileye to develop autonomous vehicles.  The BMW iNEXT model will be the foundation for BMW Group's autonomous driving strategy and set the basis for fleets of fully autonomous vehicles, on highways and for ride sharing.

"Highly autonomous cars and everything they connect to will require powerful and reliable electronic brains to make them smart enough to navigate traffic and avoid accidents," said Intel CEO Brian Krzanich. "This partnership between BMW Group, Intel and Mobileye will help us to quickly deliver on our vision to reinvent the driving experience.


Are governments ready for driverless cars?

Car makers and technology companies may be racing to get driverless cars on the roads, but there will need to be changes to laws before they start appearing in cities and on highways anytime soon.  In the US, for example, Google has been lobbying for State and Federal government to move faster in recognising driverless cars.

The UK, however, is ahead of the curve.  The government pledged to be at the forefront of automotive technology in the Queen’s Speech earlier this year as part of the Modern Transport Bill. New legislation will mean that 2020 driverless cars can be insured under regular car policies.  The transport ministers of EU members have signed the Amsterdam Declaration which outlines steps to be taken to introduce driverless cars in the EU.

Driverless cars may have some way to go, but they are large-scale proof that we are on our way to being a truly connected world as the Internet of Things (IoT) gathers pace.

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Anthony Plewes

After a Masters in Computer Science, I decided that I preferred writing about IT rather than programming. My 20-year writing career has taken me to Hong Kong and London where I've edited and written for IT, business and electronics publications. In 2002 I co-founded Futurity Media with Stewart Baines where I continue to write about a range of topics such as unified communications, cloud computing and enterprise applications.