Autonomous vehicles: Back to the future

Zabir Rahman
Autonomous vehicles are making steady inroads across the world and could well change the way we commute in a couple of decades from now
Associate Editor at Unravel

Autonomous vehicle (AV) development has made large strides in recent years. Such technology has always caught the fancy of people. It was also vividly embodied in a popular 1980s television show called Back to the Future, where a self-driving, time-travelling Delorean DMC car was equal parts protagonist.

In recent years, the term ‘autonomous vehicles’ became common when Tesla Motors began wielding influence. In fact, Tesla has been so innovative that in less than two decades, it has exceeded Ford Motor Company’s market capitalisation. This is after Ford Motor Company had a hundred-year head start on Tesla. The higher spec vehicles from Tesla’s stable are equipped with an auto-pilot mode and in much the same way as in an aircraft, the vehicle can manoeuvre itself using state-of-the art computing and advances in IoT. Tesla vehicles are not fully autonomous yet, meaning they have a steering wheel and the automaker does specify that human intervention is still necessary. Even in auto-pilot mode, the driver is encouraged to retain his or her hand on the wheel.

Hundreds of other autonomous vehicle companies have emerged in addition to Tesla, and even technology majors such as Google and Apple are now active participants in this space.

In the US alone, there are 420 AV-related company headquarters, followed by Israel with 84 such companies and the UK with 72. Separately, several countries have dedicated roadways allocated for AV testing and there are working models that have been pressed into public transit service.

Concerns and challenges related to AV technology

Data privacy concerns. Countries already hold diverse views in their attempts to quantify the ambit of data privacy regulations for road users. This is a valid concern since users’ destination data, for example, will also be tracked. While such data can alleviate problems such as traffic congestion with better route planning, it also does encroach on personal space. The EU maintains strict privacy standards governed by the General Data Protection Regulation. The US provides less protection at a federal level, although states including California have adopted stricter measures. Countries such as China place less emphasis on road user data privacy.

Source: Deloitte 2020 Global Automotive Consumer Study

AV related fatalities have raised red flags. There have been several reports pertaining to AV-related accidents. These events have cast a doubt in the minds of consumers and has impacted their view of the technology. In South Korea, for example, 72% of respondents in a Deloitte survey revealed they were apprehensive of AV technology. In an anomaly of sorts, 70% of Indian respondents too expressed their concerns over the safety of AV vehicles. This is an interesting highlight when one considers even air bags are not a mandatory safety feature in vehicles sold in India. In the US, it is significantly more expensive to insure a Tesla than a comparable model that does not feature an ‘auto-pilot’ mode.

While autonomous vehicles present obvious advantages such as limiting or entirely eliminating the need for driver intervention, it also presents the potential to significantly lessen traffic related fatalities.

Do auto manufacturers have too much legacy to deal with? Barring Japan, respondents in most countries repose less trust in traditional auto manufacturers to bring fully automated vehicle technology to market. In fact, in China, the US, Korea and Germany, there has been a marked decrease in this regard between 2018 and now. Tech giants such as Amazon, Alphabet, Apple and Baidu, among others, have actively ventured into this space and it is too early to tell whether they will be more successful than traditional auto manufacturers who are perceived to carry too much legacy. A mix of the two is also something we could see more of. For example, when Uber attracted $1 billion in funding exclusively for its autonomous vehicles programme, it was backed by traditional auto giant Toyota, and Denso, an auto parts conglomerate, and SoftBank. Deals such as these indicate that we could be seeing greater collaboration in this field between companies from different domains.

AVs as a means to safer roads

While autonomous vehicles present obvious advantages such as limiting or entirely eliminating the need for driver intervention, they can also potentially significantly reduce traffic-related fatalities. Over the past few decades, as vehicle sales have climbed, so too has the number of traffic accidents.

Traffic accident related fatalities are almost always attributed to human error. According to the World Health Organization, an estimated 1.35 million people die in road accidents each year, and 50 million people are injured. More than nine in 10 fatalities on the roads are witnessed in low- and middle-income economies, although they are home to a much lower 60% of vehicles globally.

It is acknowledged that advanced vehicle safety technologies can eliminate human error. As AVs become mainstream, we are likely to see fewer accidents as these vehicles are safer to travel in than one with a human at the wheel.

However, with a few fatalities being registered on account of AV related incidents as well, governments are concerned, and efforts are underway to ensure AV technology becomes fool proof.

Meanwhile, there are other factors that pose challenges.

AV usage in public transport and the advantages it could offer

Much as AVs have attracted negative press in light of traffic related incidents, it is not of ‘catastrophic proportions.’ Since Google’s Waymo division began road trials of its AV, it has registered only 30 minor accidents between 2009 and 2018.

AVs are a viable transportation medium and it is easy to understand why several countries have incorporated AV regulations for road use and also in their public transit systems.

It is becoming increasingly clear that driverless cars are well on track to dominate city streets and highways of the future. As they have the potential to be safer, they will also deliver huge cost savings in saved health costs. And this is before factoring in the technology’s environmental advantages.

Montréal intends to use AVs to offer improved public transport. Closer home in Asia, Taiwan is considering the use of AV to alleviate traffic congestion and to resolve a long-standing problem of a shortage in bus drivers for night shifts.  

Meanwhile, public transport providers in Germany have also received the green signal from their government to begin testing autonomous buses on public roads. And separately, Austria has enacted legislation permitting Vienna’s public transport provider to begin self-driving minibus trials in collaboration with French AV startup Navya.

A similar approach has been adopted by public transit providers in Singapore, Spain and the UK – with all three countries actively testing autonomous buses.

Source: Deloitte 2020 Global Automotive Consumer Study

Going forward

It is becoming increasingly clear that driverless cars are well on track to dominate city streets and highways of the future. As they have the potential to be safer, they will also deliver huge cost savings in saved health costs. And this is before factoring in the technology’s environmental advantages.

It is undoubtedly going to be a long road ahead given some challenges associated with them and reluctance among potential users to step into the unknown, but several companies are leading the way with trials and pilots.

There is little doubt AVs are going to ferry us ‘back to the future’.

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Author profile
Zabir Rahman
Associate Editor at Unravel

Zabir is an associate editor at Unravel and drives research projects at StoneBench, with a focus on projects relating to media, digitalisation and technological adoption.

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