The future of transport: autonomous vehicles

In the first of a new series looking at the changing world of mobility, we plot the likely route of the self-driving revolution as it cruises smoothly through the next few years.

We’re living in an era when science fiction is rapidly becoming science fact. Take autonomous vehicles (AVs): the ‘Johnny Cab’ from the movie Total Recall could be a reality in a matter of a few short years.

We’re already well on the way, with many of the cars you’ll find in a typical new-car showroom having assistance systems that do a lot of work for the driver. Adaptive cruise control, autonomous emergency braking, blindspot monitoring and lane-keeping systems are stepping stones on the way to complete autonomy.

The journey to full autonomy has been defined by SAE International (the Society of Automotive Engineers), which has established a six-level classification system that car manufacturers are working to.

Level 0 is an automated system that issues warnings but there is no vehicle control. Level 1 is where the driver and the automated system share control of the vehicle. Level 2 is defined as an automated system that can take full control of the vehicle, but the driver must be prepared to intervene at any time. Level 3 means the driver doesn’t have to concentrate on the task of driving and, while the car’s systems will deal with situations that require an immediate response, the driver has to be able to take control at short notice. Level 4 means the driver’s attention isn’t required but the car can only operate within an area with the technological infrastructure to support it: if that isn’t in place, the car has to be able to pull over safely to let the human take over. Finally, for Level 5, no human driver is required.

The autonomy reality gap

We’re nowhere near Level 5 yet, despite what many people seem to think: a recent survey by Thatcham Research (a safety research and testing organisation that is the UK member of Euro NCAP) found that 53% believe they can already buy a car that can drive itself, with 11% thinking that technology is developed enough to allow them to take a nap.

The car could be included as part of the overall realignment of the future of connected living, which is based on three key areas: connected cities, connected workplaces and connected homes.

Yeswant Abhimanyu
Principal Consultant, Latin America research, Frost & Sullivan

This confusion is potentially dangerous, as Matthew Avery, director of research at Thatcham, says: “Carmakers are designing and marketing vehicles in such a way that drivers believe they can relinquish control. Manufacturers refer to ‘self-driving’ or ‘semi-autonomous’ capability in their marketing, but it is fuelling consumer confusion. This is exacerbated by some systems doing too much for the driver, who ends up disengaged.

“We think Level 3 is intrinsically bad, for example, because it offers the promise of automation but not the backup and the safety. If you provide the support the driver needs, we would call it automated. If you don’t, it’s assisted. We don’t expect automation until at least 2021, because of the need for regulation. Up to that point, we want drivers to use these systems, but not rely on them and to understand it’s not automated.”

There are clearly risks on the journey to full autonomy, if people misunderstand the changing limitations of the technology, but when we finally arrive, the long-term benefits are obvious. World Health Organization figures show that around 1.35m people are killed every year on the world’s roads, with road-safety studies suggesting that human error causes at least 90% of collisions. Take the human element out of driving and we could reduce fatalities massively.

The idea of ownership will change gear

Autonomy could also change our lives by leading to lower levels of car ownership. Darren Jukes, leader of industry for industrial products and services at PwC, explains: “There are certain car brands, whose existence and ethos is built on people who want to drive cars. Do I think there will ever be an autonomous Ferrari? Absolutely not. You don’t buy a Ferrari for someone else to do drive it. A Mercedes-Benz S-Class, though? Different story. And something like a Ford Focus is more of a mobility solution, something in which to get around. I think you will still see a spectrum where autonomy will be a very strong feature of most vehicles, while there will be exceptions at the points of the extreme.”

Yeswant Abhimanyu – principal consultant, Latin America research, automotive and transportation (mobility) at Frost & Sullivan – sees other opportunities in the role the car plays in our future, connected lives: “How cars will be more like a living space in the future is one of the key trends we’re seeing. The car could be included as part of the overall realignment of the future of connected living, which is based on three key areas: connected cities, connected workplaces and connected homes. Across of all these, the connected car has a very important role to play.”

If AVs also lead to lower levels of car ownership, this could mean significant changes to our towns and cities, as urban space previously used for roads, parking and garages is freed up, which could, in turn, help create higher population densities and more green space. Alternatively, if people do prefer to own AVs, they could choose to live further from workplaces, as their commuting time could be more relaxing and/or productive, so workplaces could move to the outskirts of towns and cities.

Accelerating the pace of change

So what do we need to get us over the line? Car manufacturers are currently spending billions on the research and development of AVs, but everything depends on legislation being in place to make them road legal. This is happening, slowly: in August 2018, for example, the UK Parliament passed the Automated and Electric Vehicles Act, which adapts the current motor insurance regulations by extending compulsory insurance to AVs, as well as drivers.

“The UK has made a lot of inroads, with big investments, a committed government and world-leading policy; it has seen many positive announcements regarding both private-sector initiatives and local and central-government strategies,” says Sarah Owen-Vandersluis, partner, head of strategy, government and infrastructure, KPMG UK. “In both the public and private sectors, the pace and scale of activity is rapidly increasing. New initiatives and collaborations are beginning to identify benefits like improved accessibility, productivity, safety and economic growth, and prove the commerciality of new business models.”

Part of this activity is a government announcement that it is supporting three public trials in 2021, including AV buses in Scotland and self-driving taxis in London, which are the latest in a series of recent trials. Progress is definitely being made towards our self-driving future.

So while London cabs probably won’t be called Johnny Cabs, they will be a definite sign that AVs are a reality, not just something we see in science fiction.

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