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Apr 19, 2016 | 10:00 GMT

8 mins read

The Slow Drive Toward Automated Vehicles

Computing programs for self-driving vehicles will be perfected eventually. It will take much longer for drivers in some countries to accept the new technology.
(HAROLD CUNNINGHAM/Getty Images)
Forecast Highlights

  • Advancements in autonomous vehicle technology are inevitable, but outdated regulations and public perception could delay its assimilation into societies.
  • Fully incorporating autonomous systems will not come easy for the United States because of its sprawling infrastructure and ingrained personal driving culture.
  • China will have a smoother transition to autonomous vehicles than the United States will because of demographic and social factors.

Autonomous vehicles are no longer the far-off concepts of science fiction. New trials or developments in self-driving vehicles are announced on a regular basis, and the Google car, driving itself as it gathers data, is becoming a familiar sight along the streets of Mountain View, Calif., and Austin, Texas. Self-driving cars will inevitably become more prominent as computing technology matures; how long they take to fully replace human drivers is another matter.

Many cars already feature some level of automation, such as parking assistance and adaptive cruise control. Moreover, numerous companies, including Tesla, Google, GM, Ford, Audi and Volvo, have automated vehicles in various stages of testing and development, or have acquired partnerships to increase research into automation. Toyota recently formed a new data company with Microsoft, focusing on vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communication. GM also recently purchased Cruise Automation, a startup with one of only a few permits to test self-driving vehicles in California.

When fully developed, autonomous vehicles will be able to communicate with each other and with infrastructure, such as stoplights, to move traffic efficiently. Automation can also help resolve parking issues in urban areas. Ride-hailing programs have already been shown to reduce the number of vehicles per household; automated vehicles could bring the number down further.

But development is still a work in progress. In tests in urban and rural settings, automated vehicles have struggled with bad weather and difficult terrain. They need better mapping, more reliable sensors and improved software to better respond to changing road conditions and to anticipate and adjust to the unpredictable behavior of pedestrians, other vehicles and even the environment. Costs will need to come down as well before the technology can be widely adopted. Still, the variety of environments in which self-driving vehicles can operate is increasing rapidly, and industry experts believe fully automated vehicles could be ready by 2040, if not sooner.

Yet even when the technological barriers are finally surmounted, cars will still be a staple of preference, identity and class for many people in several countries. Technological developments will probably outpace changes in public opinion and culture that are necessary to remove human drivers from the road. Regulations unique to automated transportation, including measures to address liability in the event of an accident, will also need to adjust to the new, driverless world. And a host of national and international issues, such as deciding who owns the data the autonomous vehicles generate, will need to be settled. Countries with less entrenched driving cultures will therefore be more likely to smoothly transition to and reap many of the benefits of the technology. For others, change will not come easily.

The Need for Self-Driving Vehicles

Humans are inefficient drivers, at times accelerating too fast, braking too late or otherwise using the vehicle in nonproductive ways. Drivers also contribute to the strain on public infrastructure, which requires government funds to repair and maintain. In crowded urban areas and on freeways, aging transportation networks and accidents contribute to delays and congestion.

As global urbanization levels rise, so will congestion and its associated costs; more people usually means more cars on the road. In 2050, 66 percent of the world's population is expected to live in urban areas, up from 54 percent in 2014. Some countries will see even greater growth rates: China's urban population is expected to climb from 54 percent to 76 percent by 2050. And although the number of people in urban areas will decline in other countries, such as Germany and Japan, congestion will remain a problem around the world. Congestion costs come from lost time and productivity, fuel expenses, and general wear and tear. For example, traffic congestion is projected to cost the United States nearly $3 trillion between 2013 and 2030. France, the United Kingdom and Germany are expected to see congestion costs in the billions of dollars over the same period. The costs, though a relatively small fraction of total gross domestic product, are substantial nonetheless, and countries will want to reduce them. To do so, countries will need to build new infrastructure, rely on new technologies that use existing infrastructure more efficiently, or both.

Automated vehicle technology can alleviate some of the issues confronting transportation networks. Niche sectors will be the first adopters. It will be most easily applied to off-road sectors such as agriculture and mining, but automation will also make early progress in public transit. For instance, self-driving computing programs can easily accommodate bus routes. Support and funding from local, regional and national governments will make it easier to implement the technology and produce fleets more quickly. Plans and tests for autonomous buses or shuttles are already underway in Europe, the United States, China and Singapore.

Furthermore, automation will affect all aspects of modern supply chains, streamlining movement from ports to warehouses. When combined with vehicle-to-vehicle communication, autonomous technology could facilitate truck platooning, when vehicles in a fleet drive close together. Platooning, which uses optimal speeds and minimizes air resistance, can lower fuel consumption and operating costs while increasing highway capacity in high-traffic corridors. In fact, NXP Semiconductors and DAF Trucks demonstrated platooning with automated trucks across Europe. Special lanes designated for automated platooning could help to decrease congestion in urban areas even further and will likely be necessary if such operations are to be conducted alongside human drivers.

Who Will Benefit

Governments in the United States, Europe, China and Japan know the benefits of implementing self-driving vehicles in transportation networks. So do the major global automotive companies that have programs to develop autonomous vehicles. But in societies with deeply embedded cultures defined by individual driving, people may not immediately recognize the benefits, resisting change and slowing the full transition to automated vehicles. And ultimately, people will determine how quickly automated vehicles take over the roads. Consequently, how quickly the new mode of transportation permeates society will vary from country to country, and within countries, even when the technology is finally ready to roll. 

The United States would gain much from automation, which could ease much of the pressure on its massive infrastructure. The U.S. government approves of the technology's development: In his 2017 budget, President Barack Obama proposed almost $4 billion over the next decade to support automated vehicle research. Still, the well-established car culture in the United States, where driving is associated with recreation and identity, will make it difficult to convince the population to accept self-driving cars. Even initial developments in public transportation will be better suited to urban environments than to the suburban sprawl that pervades much of the country. And although younger generations are gradually trending toward owning fewer cars, it will still take decades to change the public perception of automated vehicles and to remove human drivers from the road completely.

In Europe, the public transportation sector could rapidly adopt automation, as numerous trial projects around the Continent attest. Unlike in the United States, European culture is generally more receptive to public transportation and will transition to automation in this area more smoothly. Compared with the rest of the world, however, Europe does not face the same risk from congestion and infrastructure problems. Demographic declines in parts of Europe will mean fewer drivers and fewer cars. Though these issues remain important, Europe may not have the same sense of urgency to adopt automated technology that other countries do.

Perhaps China, which has also begun to develop automated vehicles domestically and in partnership with Western companies, stands the greatest chance of adopting the technology fully and rapidly. Last year, Chinese tech company Baidu's self-driving car hit the roads, along with Chinese manufacturer Yutong's autonomous bus, which performed a successful test run. Urban congestion and pollution are already issues for China. It already has six cities with at least 10 million inhabitants and many more cities with between 5 million and 10 million people, and its urban population is only going to grow. And as the middle class continues to expand, the number of cars in China is projected to rise. Thus, Beijing, unwilling to risk fomenting unnecessary unrest at this delicate time, will seek technological solutions, including automation, to help mitigate congestion and pollution. Its broader strategy of focusing on domestic technology development and greater government influence will help China become one of the earliest, widest adopters of automated vehicle technology.

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