Peeling back fantasy to reveal reality

Autonomous driving.

“MIT built a self-driving car that can navigate unmapped county roads.” “Who’s winning the race to build self-driving cars?” “Uber’s self-driving car saw the pedestrian, but didn’t swerve.” There’s a lot of talk about autonomous vehicles, or self-driving cars. Whether you approve of them or not, they’re on the way. But maybe not as quickly as we’ve been led to believe.

Consider the tricky terrain of regulations, the scale of additional technological advances it requires, the various stages the motor industry needs to go through and the need to win customer confidence. It’s obvious that we’re still a long, long way – perhaps even 30 years – from the driverless destination.

According to Matt Johnson, VP and GM of Automotive MCU Group[1], the journey will take us through three distinct stages over the coming decades.

We are currently in the first stage, the ‘Assist’ phase, which means there’s technology available to assist with driving – cameras, sensors, alerts, adaptive cruise control and break assist.

“While we still might be 30 years away from fully autonomous cars, you can get a taste of the future with many leading brands offering autonomous features now, such as adaptive cruise control and lane-centering steering.” Nigel Rutherford, CEO Peeled Finance.

The next stage on the journey is the ‘Automate’ phase. At this point it will become mainstream for the vehicle to take over driving many tasks, with the human simply co-piloting. All indicators suggest this will be 10 to 15 years away. The last stage is the ‘Autonomous’ phase, when vehicles become totally independent and require no human intervention. They will be capable of detecting and handling any potential threats even before a human brain could be aware of them. Estimated time of arrival: 2050.

McKinsey[2] agree with this timeline, predicting that by 2050 owning an autonomous vehicle will become the norm for consumers. Not only will humans no longer have the task of driving (giving us an average 50 minutes extra a day to spend more productively), but parking will also become simpler, allowing for a reduction in the amount of parking space needed for each car.

In the USA, this could free up 5.7billion square metres, an area the size of Sri Lanka[3]. Road accidents are also expected to fall dramatically, dropping from being the USA’s second most frequent cause of death to the ninth, while also saving money and resources required for A&E departments.

There are more that 325 million vehicles[4] in operation in North American, a further 390 million in Europe and as many as 165 million in China. These figures give us an indication of the sheer number of cars in the world. Add in the fact that each car is built to last for at least 10 to 15 years, and it’s easy to work out that the kind of transformational changes promised by autonomous driving are likely take several decades to reach our roads. After all, it’s taken over century to get to the point we’re at now.

[1] Transition to autonomous vehicles will go through several stages, by Geillaume Renouard, 2015
[2] An integrated perspective on the future of mobility, McKinsey Centre for Business and Environment, September 2017
[3] Central intelligence Agency, 2012
[4] Deloitte Global Automotive Consumer Study, Deloitte Insights, 2018