Autonomy's coming ... Or is it?

By Rob Leach

“It’s a matter of when, not if.” That’s the received wisdom around autonomous driving. If Tesla, Apple and Google are betting the farm on it, driverless cars are a no-brainer.

With every OEM also investing billions to convert a century of petrol and diesel cars into a brave new world of electrically powered self-driving safety capsules, the days of driver-propulsion seem numbered.

But hang on. There are some massive barriers to overcome.

Perhaps surprisingly, technology isn’t one of them. Massively complicated systems which combine computers, algorithms, artificial intelligence, lasers and sensors are up to the job. Their ability to read billions of bytes of data in milliseconds makes an unbeatable argument for superiority over human frailties. With trillions being invested, electrically-driven autonomy is technically feasible.

It’s the social challenge that’s going to be more of a challenge.

Take insurance for example. Governments are addressing the issue, but who’s to blame when no one’s in the driving seat?

And what about the crossover period? If you could introduce infrastructure into an autonomous cityscape in one go, great. But what happens when the driverless meets the driver? It could get messy.

And how do you integrate the charging infrastructure? With the UK government announcing an investment of just £19m to fast-track self-driving projects, is the political will and imagination able to match the needs and vision of entrepreneurial private companies?

Most importantly, how do you win public trust? It took just one fatality to undermine confidence in autonomous driving in the USA. We’re told that human error is responsible for 94% of accidents[1] and that computers, lasers and sensors are safe and reliable. Try telling that to someone whose wireless network keeps going down. Or whose smart meters aren’t so smart.

And what about hacking?

As humans, we want to be in control. It’s striking that most motorists believe computers are less trustworthy than humans. 80% of motorists think driverless cars must include controls to let them take over.

And hey: many of us actually like driving!

None of these barriers is insuperable, but a study of 1200 UK consumers suggested that 48% would not buy an autonomous car. 33% refused to even contemplate being in one. By contrast, just 24% would be happy to go autonomous[2].

So it’s going to take time – and possibly a new generation to grow up around the technology.

The young are already giving up driving. In the US, 20-24 year olds who drive fell from 91.8% to 76.7% between 1983 and 2014[3]. When European millennials from 12 countries were asked about the future of mobility, 60% of them talked about the need for sustainable cars, using environmentally-friendly technology[4]. They’re likely to be more open and more welcoming. If they can hail an Uber from their phone, why not summon a driverless car at the swipe of a smartphone or press of an App?

In the meantime, it’s going to take time for the doubters and cynics to die off and the above arguments to be resolved. The death of the internal combustion engine is undoubtedly in sight, but autonomous mobility remains a distant prospect. The day when the combustion engine disappears from dense urban areas like Paris and Munich, Madrid and London is further away than the excited visionaries might think.


[2] SPA Future Thinking: Automotive Trends 2015
[3] University of Michigan
[4] ThinkGoodMobility report