Driverless Cars: When Will the Rubber Really Hit the Road?

May 19, 2017  |  By Thomas Huntington  |       

Waiting for the future

In a relatively short period, driverless cars have gone from science fiction to everyday fact. Companies like Waymo have already logged millions of miles successfully testing autonomous vehicles on the road, while Tesla, Uber, Apple and major car manufacturers are all vying to become the first to bring self-driving vehicles to market. In fact, conventional wisdom now seems to be that it’s no longer a question of “if” but rather “when” autonomous vehicles will become a permanent part of the mainstream transportation experience.

That may be where the consensus ends, however, as the “when” part draws wildly divergent responses from people both in and out of the automotive industry. Some theorize that driverless cars will completely transform everyday life sooner rather than later, painting a utopian picture where autonomous Transportation as a Service (TaaS) companies (think self-driving Ubers) essentially replace car ownership, dramatically improving safety and reducing pollution. Skeptics counter that regulatory issues, safety concerns and a deep cultural attachment to car ownership and driving are obstacles too big to overcome, at least any time soon.

An insider’s view

Industry veteran Bob Denaro is uniquely positioned to offer an informed perspective on the various factors that contribute to the mainstream rollout of autonomous vehicles. Currently a private consultant in intelligent transportation systems technology and strategy as well as an advisor to transportation-focused Motus Ventures, Bob spearheaded some of the industry’s earliest Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) and telematics products as an executive at companies including Nokia/Navteq, Motorola and Trimble Navigation, and is currently a member of the U.S. DOT ITS Program Federal Advisory Committee and chair of the Transportation Research Board Joint Subcommittee on Challenges and Opportunities for Road Vehicle Automation. In other words, Mr. Denaro knows whereof he speaks when it comes to driverless vehicles, and while he is bullish on the future, he also sees a great deal of uncertainty on the road ahead.

“As far as the longer term goes, it’s anybody’s guess right now. I don’t think we even know all the problems and challenges that driverless vehicles face in complex environments, much less have solutions for them,” Denaro commented. When asked where driverless cars may be in 5 years, he points to the methodical manufacturing, testing and certification pace of the traditional automotive industry. “Even today, it takes about 4 years for a car to go from concept to reality, so five years is a not a very distant horizon when it comes to the auto industry.”

Safety first

Safety is a key consideration, especially for government and regulatory bodies tasked with creating laws and standards that protect drivers and passengers. “Regulatory authorities are torn,” Denaro says. “On the one hand, they want to aggressively move forward with driverless vehicles because of the potential benefits to society on accident reduction, traffic congestion and environmental impacts. On the other hand, they have to make sure they fully understand the safety implications, and that will take time.”

Those safety implications are more complicated than they may first appear. While everyone agrees that technology has the potential to reduce accidents by removing the element of human error or driver distraction, those same advancements may be achievable without migrating to fully driverless cars.  “I believe that automated vehicles will prevent a lot of common accidents like run-off-road and rear end collisions, no question. The number of accidents mitigated will be very, very large,” Denaro commented. “That said, a lot of those accidents could be prevented without full automation thanks to ADAS and crash prevention systems which are already being adopted in most new cars.”

It is also not clear that autonomous cars won’t present an entirely new set of safety challenges. “Humans do a pretty good job in between accidents,” Denaro said, referencing studies that show an average of  over 3 million miles driven between fatal accidents for any particular vehicle in the US. “I believe that automated vehicles will prevent a lot of accidents at the end of those 3 million miles, but can they also preserve that enviable record in between accidents?” Denaro points to the relatively small number of high-profile collisions that have already taken place in the testing process. “Those few cases we’re seeing in the press are often cases where a human may not have made that mistake, even though those vehicles are probably preventing lots of other accidents in the long run.”

Changing lanes

Given regulatory, safety and cultural challenges, it makes sense to assume that driverless vehicles will roll out more quickly in some sectors and geographies than others. Denaro believes that ride-sharing/taxi industry and fleet trucking are likely to adopt the technology before end-users, in part due to economic factors. He also suggests that the U.S. may not be the first country to fully embrace driverless vehicles, as the cultural and regulatory landscape in places like Singapore or China may help things progress at a faster rate.

And when we finally do see driverless cars being sold at every dealership, traditional vehicles will not just disappear overnight. “I agree that conventional vehicles will not go away for a very long time,” Denaro said. “Just as we now have interstate highways restricted to certain kinds of vehicles (i.e. road-tested cars, not golf carts or dune buggies), I can see dedicated lanes on interstates for automated vehicles. And at some point in the future, who knows, those roadways may become exclusive to autonomous vehicles and conventional cars could be relegated to other roads.”

While Henry Ford (may or may not have) famously said that if he had asked people what they wanted when he was building his automobiles they would have said “a faster horse,” Denaro points out that there is still room on the road, or trail, as the case may be, for many different forms of transportation. “I understand that there are more horses in the U.S. now than there were just before the invention of the automobile. People love to ride horses, and they didn’t stop just because cars were available. Don’t get rid of that ’64 Cobra just yet!” So, while driverless vehicles may inevitably transform the transportation landscape, that doesn’t mean that people will stop loving to drive their cars, even if parking lots eventually become as rare as hitching posts.

Topics: Automotive Trends, Autonomous/Driverless Cars

Thomas Huntington

Thomas Huntington is the Senior Director of Marketing at Abalta Technologies.

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