Are self-driving cars a reality?


Technology continues to improve the way we live, communicate and in various ways, including the automotive industry. The automotive industry is changing in fundamentals ways, influenced by the rapid pace of technology innovation in personal transportation. Uber disrupted conventional model of urban transport by leveraging innovative digital technologies, providing convenience and quality service. The internal combustion engine (ICe) is increasingly complemented or superseded with an electric motor (EV). According to cars.co.za (2017), citing the official Japanese testing process. The new Nissan Leaf (EV) claims double the range of the outgoing model, at 400 km. Small improvements have been made to ensure the Leaf travels further than ever on a single charge. According to the guardian (2018), "Ford Motor Co will significantly increase its planned investments in electric vehicles to $11bn by 2022 and have 40 hybrid and fully electric vehicles in its model line-up", the company’s chairman, Bill Ford, said that at the Detroit auto show.

Automobile is becoming more intelligent, personalized and connected. These are exciting times to witness unprecedented technological advancement in different industries, for example blockchain is revolutionizing the financial industry and others. Get ready, innovations are about to get even better and more interesting with the emerging autonomous vehicles or self-driving cars. According to TechTarget, a driverless car (sometimes called a self-driving car, an automated car or an autonomous vehicle) is a robotic vehicle that is designed to travel between destinations without a human operator. To qualify as fully autonomous, a vehicle must be able to navigate without human intervention to a predetermined destination over roads that have not been adapted for its use. 

Companies developing and/or testing driverless cars include Audi, BMW, Ford, Google, General Motors, Volkswagen and Volvo. The Google self-driving car project is now Waymo. According to Waymo website, they are building a safer driver that is always alert and never distracted. Their vehicles have sensors and software that are designed to detect pedestrians, cyclists, vehicles, road work and more from a distance of up to two football fields away in all directions. According to different sources, GM invested $500 million in Lyft in 2015 and is planning to test hundreds of electric self-driving taxis on public roads. Ford announced in 2017 that it will work with Lyft to deploy its self-driving cars on the ride-hail service’s platform by 2021.

The automotive industry innovation has come a long way since 1901 from an oldsmobile curved dash invention, combustion engine, electric motor and now self-driving cars. According to Fortune (2017) self-driving car revolution is gaining speed, and will change our everyday lives in ways big or small. While this transition may take longer than industry leaders hope, its eventual impact on society is hard to overstate. Self-driving cars won't hit our roads in a noticeable way until 2020. This presents great opportunities for Tech companies and Automakers.

The adoption in emerging countries may take a little longer compared to developed countries. According to Gartner (2017), by 2022, it's likely that autonomous vehicles will be used on roadways in limited, well-defined, geofenced and controlled areas. Autonomous means acting unsupervised for a defined period to complete a task. It is no doubt that autonomous driving technology will fundamentally transform the automotive industry, changing the way vehicles are built, operated, sold, used and serviced. Data from connected cars, when combined with other information using IoT may provide valuable intelligence. AI technology is a driving force behind autonomous vehicles, robots, drones etc. The rapid pace in sensor technology will enhance self-driving cars. Vehicle-to-vehicle communication is a great need with autonomous driving. Let's explore some of the opportunities and challenges for self-driving cars.

Opportunities:

  • Self-driving cars can lower the number of accidents, removing human error. According to Google, it's driverless cars have been involved in only 11 accidents, but none were caused by cars. Fortune (2017) cited that the World Health Organization estimates that there were about 1.25 million traffic fatalities worldwide in 2013. Self-driving cars will eliminate human error and distraction, a major cause of those accidents.

  • We'll also have more free time (albeit in a car). According to the U.S. Census, the average American commutes more than 26 minutes each way, or 500 days spent commuting per lifetime. In an autonomous car, we'll be able to use this time for work or leisure (Fortune, 2017).

  • Free parking space. This space can be re-used for property development, to build new hospitals, schools, apartments etc.

  • Reduce reliance on fossil fuels. This can contribute positively to a green world. 

  • More affordable transportation options for consumers. Just imagine if you can Uber a self-driving car, no car ownership, avoid paying monthly car installments, interest, insurance and parking. No e-toll or toll fees and more benefits.

Challenges:

  • Implementation of autonomy for road transport. This will require careful planning, keeping in mind the existing transport system.

  • This technology is still in its infancy stage. Thus further improvements in self-driving software, sensors are necessary.

  • Government legislation or regulation. It is often argued if regulation hinder Tech innovation. Regulation is increasingly forced to catch up. There needs to be a balancing act between innovation and regulation to enable this transformation. 

  • Consumer acceptance. As exciting as it may sound. It's also a bit scary, being in a self-driving car and not have full control. This will inevitably change our culture and thinking towards personal transportation. As the technology matures, these concerns should be addressed.

  • Infrastructure readiness. Will the existing road infrastructure suffice? At the moment, there are more questions than answers. 

  • This will disrupt existing business models, for example car ownership and create new ones in the process, on-demand, pay per ride etc.

Self driving cars are a reality. With reference to the report from the Brookings Institute (2017), based on the data collected related to more than 160 separate deals, including investments, partnerships, and acquisitions. The announced figures for these deals approach $80 billion dollars. Given the limitations on available information discussed above, it is reasonable to presume that total global investment in autonomous vehicle technology is significantly more than this. 

Are we ready for self-driving cars? Based on the analysis, there are great benefits for consumers in terms of cost, free time and safety. However, Automakers should gear up for competition. Tech companies, Google, Uber, Tesla and others are making significant investments in self-driving cars. Investment in self-driving cars appears to be the leading edge for AI development. Automakers should approach this innovation as a transformation or revolutionary journey that will require careful strategic planning and preparatory work. A clear and coherent digital transformation strategy for Automakers, Tech companies and Government is essential. Transformation strategy coupled with consumer awareness for self-driving cars is a good recipe for adoption.

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