Back seat driver: Commercialising autonomous cars

Google, Apple, Tesla, Nissan, NVIDIA, Uber and Jaguar Land Rover. Not names you would necessarily group together, but what do they have in common? They are all part of the race to significantly disrupt the global automotive industry. Time will tell, but one of these names could produce the biggest transport disruption since the internal combustion engine.

Google is believed to have already spent over $60m since 2009 within its autonomous vehicle research and testing, racking up over one million miles in its vehicles.  The CEO of Tesla, recently stated that – despite some high profile accidents – he envisions fully autonomous vehicles routinely on the road within two or three years.  

The basics, what exactly is a fully autonomous vehicle?

SAE international, a global standards organisation for engineering has provided a common industry definition for driving automation. This is defined under six levels of driving automation from “no automation – Level 0” to “full automation without human intervention – Level 5”. Currently only “Level 2” vehicles are on our roads under test conditions, capable of controlling both steering and speed. So a long way to go for further technology advances, before drivers can kick back and relax in the rear seat.

What challenges must be overcome for commercialisation?

We at Moorhouse believe there are three key challenges. Firstly, if an autonomous car hit a pedestrian, who would take the blame; the car manufacturer, the software developer, the sensor company or someone else? Some organisations have tentatively claimed they would take the blame, if for nothing else than to get the ball rolling in answering this question. However, until this is clear with an insurance industry backing, there simply isn’t a mass consumer market.

Secondly, no software in phones, laptops or phones is designed to operate for extended periods without freezing or crashing. Even one event of this nature for an autonomous car could be fatal. Right now Google’s self-driving cars avoid this by having a backup driver and another person as a monitor who can shut off the system.

Thirdly, sometimes drivers must make evasive actions that result in an accident either way. For example, a driver will either hit a pedestrian or a motorcyclist. This ethical dilemma would require on-board software to instantly review the outcomes and decide. These are unchartered waters, and such a machine has not yet been developed. 

What are the key benefits being promoted?

Industry data states that around 90% of road accidents are due to human error.  Machines can also make mistakes[1], as highlighted in the recent significant accident during testing of a Tesla Motors car in autopilot mode.  From 1.3 million miles of testing, Google has acknowledged only one accident[2] caused by its technology.

The implications of passenger safety are significant for manufacturers, governments, insurance companies and regulators. Industry consensus and the outputs of test results steer toward achieving a large improvement in passenger safety. However, whether this benefit will materialise is hard at the moment to say. Certainly further research and development will be required to justify it as an advantage.

A potential significant benefit in the long term is increasing overall capacity by freeing-up road space. This could be achieved through autonomous vehicles’ ability to safely drive significantly closer to each other. Multiple vehicles could join together as a chain, travelling together on UK motorways.

Testing this, a £5m UK government project will fit wireless sensors on stretches of motorways, A-roads and urban streets around Coventry and Solihull. The sensors will communicate with up to 100 different autonomous and connected vehicles, including five Jaguar Land Rover research vehicles. The study will help understand how effective the technologies could be in both reducing congestion and improving road safety.

To conclude

Organisations at the forefront of innovation in autonomous vehicle technology continue to publish news of ever increasing public trials. However, before mass commercialisation, technological advances are still required and insurance liability questions need answers.  Whoever resolves these challenges first, coupled with government licencing for public road use and understanding what the consumers really want from this new form of transport will, we believe, change the £6tr global automotive industry forever.

[1] http://uk.reuters.com/article/us-tesla-autopilot-idUKKCN0ZH4VO

[2] https://www.wired.com/2016/02/googles-self-driving-car-may-caused-first-crash/

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Jon Weall Manager