Anybody working in technology knows that new tech doesn’t simply transition smoothly from science fiction to science fact. There are always challenges and setbacks to overcome; ideas that don’t translate from concept to prototype, insufficient funding or a lack of faith in the innovation from outside. New technology, even before it sees the harsh light of the market, has generally had to ride its luck slightly, prove its resilience in testing, and catch the imagination of investors.
The rise of some technology, though, seems inevitable. It feels like a matter of time before certain staples of science fiction make the leap to become everyday features of our lives. Autonomous vehicles, so-called ‘driverless cars,’ surely fall into that category. The reality is, however, a little more complicated.
While the technology for the vehicles themselves may already be in place, with Tesla claiming in 2020 that there are only ‘minor issues’ to address, the infrastructural changes needed to support them are not. Autonomous vehicles interact with their environment by using sensors, detecting objects, ‘reading’ road signs, constantly measuring changing speeds and distances, etc. Current city infrastructure simply doesn’t have the technology in place in our streets to facilitate vehicle autonomy.
Simply building new cities from scratch with autonomous vehicles in mind is unrealistic, so the challenge of installing everything they need to function properly alongside current infrastructure, catering for old and new simultaneously, is huge. Significant amounts of time and money must be spent, and significant disruption to roads tolerated, at a time when many municipal authorities struggle with the financial burden of maintaining and repairing existing infrastructure.
This is already happening organically, as cities become increasingly smart. But it’s not changing at a uniform pace everywhere, and this presents a major challenge to the mass uptake of autonomous vehicles. It’s also likely to require two levels of change; the first intermediate stage while both driven and driverless vehicles are on the road, and a second if and when drivers disappear completely, and all the old infrastructure has to be removed or updated.
There’s also an important social barrier to overcome. Many people still instinctively regard driverless cars as inherently less safe, despite the fact that over 3,000 people currently die in road accidents every day worldwide. Insurers, who use data rather than instinct when setting premiums, see things differently. Lower premiums for driverless cars, and a greater burden of responsibility for accidents on the manufacturer instead of the driver, may overcome that mistrust of vehicle autonomy, but that change may well have to wait for an entirely new generation of car owners.
A changing auto industry
Ownership models, though, are already changing. Mobility-as-a-service is increasingly popular, and millennials are reluctant to buy cars when there is a huge fleet of on-demand vehicles available to them in an instant from their mobile phones. Ultimately this may favour the transition to autonomy, as not having to drive frees up time to do other things on the journey, and millennials instinctively trust technology more than older people.
The automotive industry is already facing major adjustments with the concurrent rise of electric and driverless cars presenting new challenges and opportunities. Mobility-as-a-service, for example, could be an opportunity for car-makers, and has significant potential to shape their future markets. Could it, however, actually lead to more cars on the road, and less use of public transport, if everybody has access to mobility services? This also has to be weighed up in a transition to total vehicle autonomy.
The regulatory landscape will have to evolve quickly to keep up with the technological one. All current vehicle regulation assumes a driver behind the wheel, and the UK was the only country not to ratify the 1968 Vienna Convention on road traffic, which stipulated a driver as a necessity. That has actually served to make the UK a leader in driverless vehicle testing, but change seems inevitable elsewhere. More and more US states are approving testing, as has Singapore. So the regulations will inevitably have to catch up.
This will require the agreement of a new set of standards that allow for Machine Learning – an essential element of autonomous vehicle tech – automated lane-keeping systems, cyber-security and so on. Despite Tesla’s confidence, it appears there is much work to be done.
Tech itself presents new challenges
An entirely driverless vehicle ecosystem offers clear benefits: a smart road network keeping traffic moving, eliminating jams and lowering carbon emissions at the same time. The elimination of accidents caused by human error. The increased accessibility of cars to people previously unable to drive them.
But the technology behind autonomous vehicles itself presents new challenges to the auto industry and to regulators. As long ago as 2016, Wired magazine ‘hacked’ a moving vehicle mid-journey, leaving its driver powerless. A car which the driver already doesn’t have control of, which requires regular software updates and is in constant contact with its smart environment, could easily become a target for cyber criminals.
Other manufacturers and industry experts are taking a considerably more cautious view than Tesla. If a complete transition is to happen, best-practice guidelines will need to be agreed for the ownership, operation, security, infrastructure, regulation and insurance of autonomous vehicles. The United States’ Congressional Research Service, while recognising that 94% of crashes currently are due to human error, pointed to the lengthy revisions needed to current regulation as a significant impediment to change. They also pointed to contemporary differences between technological readiness, infrastructural readiness and consumer acceptance.
Autonomous vehicles seem to be an example of the technology running ahead of the rest of the world. With car-makers absorbing the innovative tech and expertise of start-ups in this field, and pressing ahead with the research, that change from science fiction to fact does seem inevitable. The innovation being driven by the sector may have the brakes on slightly, but it’s certainly not going to come to a stop any time soon.