Google may have pioneered research into self-driving cars, but now governments and auto manufacturers are driving autonomous vehicles forward, in the hope that they can reduce accidents and environmental emissions.
Self-driving (autonomous) cars are vehicles that can drive themselves without a human driver. Semi-autonomous vehicles can drive themselves in some situations but must be driven by a human in others. These vehicles rely on a range of sensors that monitor surroundings, and software to help them navigate the roads and drive the vehicle.
In the UK, the government recently announced £19 million toward road trials of driverless cars and a further pot of £100 million for research. In the US, 16 US cities will test the French Veeo passenger vehicle this year; in Sweden, Volvo's Drive Me pilot will see 100 self-driving XC90 vehicles on Gothenburg’s streets by 2017.
Delphi Automotive is at present attempting a 3,500-mile coast-to-coast autonomous vehicle test between San Francisco and New York.
The motivation is partly economic: in a report, KPMG estimates that autonomous vehicles could contribute £51 billion and 320,000 for the UK economy by 2030. Furthermore, they could reduce serious road traffic accidents by over 25,000 each year.
KPMG says most of the predicted £40 billion economic benefits “will accrue to consumers who experience a transformation in the ease at which they can travel, which in turn generates wider economic benefits, such as few accidents, improved productivity and increased trade.”
Aside from the wider impacts, the rest of the economic benefit will be derived from taxation and road safety improvements. Twenty-five thousand jobs should be created in vehicle manufacturing alone, KPMG predicts, but adjacent industries such as telecoms and the digital industry plus anticipated productivity benefits will account for additional employment boosts.
McKinsey & Company projects a similar economic uplift in the US, with widespread adoption of self-driving vehicle expected to reduce crashes by 90%, saving nearly $200 billion a year from significantly fewer injuries and deaths.
When cars are autonomous need they ever be inactive? If acceptable, car sharing could deliver significant benefits. KTH Royal Institute of Technology suggests one shared self-driving vehicle could potentially replace up to 14 cars. One positive outcome would be a 80% reduction in demand for parking places.
Pierre-Jean Rigole from the KTH Center for Traffic Research says self-driving vehicles will, “revolutionize car ownership, lead to more flexible traffic, with far fewer crashes. And they will free up valuable space in cities that is currently occupied by parked cars.”
Semi-autonomous vehicles will hit the streets this year when Tesla will bring semi-autonomous capabilities to Model S vehicles with a software update. (Orange Business will provide connectivity services for this Tesla model in France). But it’s not until 2020 when vehicle manufacturers expect to begin bringing their first autonomous vehicles to market. And it could be even longer before they are licensed for use on public highways.
A recent Harris Interactive poll suggests the process of persuading the public and governments of the benefits of self-driving cars will take time.
The poll found that while 35% of Americans see these vehicles as the future of driving just seven percent of adults see no drawbacks to these plans. Eighty percent of US people are concerned about potential computer “glitches” while 69% are concerned these vehicles will be significantly more expensive to service. Thirty-seven percent are concerned about data breaches.
The legal framework must also evolve: car insurance depends on assigning blame to the driver at fault. Even if the number of road traffic accidents is reduced with self-driving cars, who is at fault in the event of a crash?
Anders Eugensson, Volvo Cars' director of government affairs suggests that manufacturers may have to take some responsibility if a self-driving car crashes in autonomous mode.
Policy makers in the UK are recognizing this: a March 2015 Commons Transport Committee report says the UK must reform the law to clarify how self-driving vehicles will affect the liabilities of drivers, manufacturers and insurers.
“Government must do more to prepare for a transition period where manual, semi-autonomous and driverless vehicles will share UK roads,” warned Louise Ellman, chairperson of the UK government’s Commons Transport Committee. “Transport Ministers must explain how different types of vehicles will be certified and tested, how drivers will be trained and how driving standards will be updated, monitored and enforced.”
Autonomous vehicles could have a dramatic impact on our urban environment. Speaking at the SMMT Connected conference in London, Stian Westlake, director of policy and research at innovation charity Nesta predicted that city layouts will change, car parks will be relocated and vehicles will perform additional services such as picking up dry cleaning.
"Being able to move parking off-site, creating self-park and ride cars - will potentially lead to a transformation to our city centers. This could take currently wasted urban space and turn it into retail space, or provide space for extra housing. It's hugely attractive,” said Westlake.
Read more about Orange Business and its vision for self driving cars within the future smart city. You can also find out more about the business case for connected cars and how vehicle intelligence can reduce accidents.