From forecourt to scrapyard, a new car in the UK lasts an average of 13.9 years, which is why if you got one today, it might very well be the last car you buy. Over the next decade, accelerating autonomous driving technology, including advances in artificial intelligence, sensors, cameras, radar and data analytics, are set to transform not only how we drive (or, indeed, are driven), but the notion of car ownership itself. “Autonomous driving has become the next major battlefield for the car industry,” says Luca Mentuccia, automotive global MD at Accenture.
The six levels of automation, defined under international standards by the Society of Automotive Engineers, range from “no automation” to “full automation”, explains Sven Raeymaekers, of tech investment banker GP Bullhound. “If you look at the most recent predictions, the majority of car manufacturers estimate the first highly to fully automated vehicles [AVs] will hit the market between 2020-2025,” he says.
When they do, regulatory approval permitting, their most significant impact is likely to be in the area of urban mobility. “AVs will enable new service configurations where consumers are delivered door to door with virtually no stops in a comfortable vehicle with just one to three other passengers,” says Stan Boland, CEO of FiveAI, which builds AI-driven software for AVs and is one of the companies testing autonomous vehicles on UK roads in 2017, alongside major manufacturers including Volvo and Ford.
Such services will be safer, reduce pollution and congestion, and will also bring about a paradigm shift in personal vehicle ownership rates, which are likely to decline steeply, he says. A recent survey of car manufacturing executives by KPMG similarly revealed that 59% of industry bosses believe that more than half of all car owners today will no longer want to own a car by 2025.
So how exactly will we be getting about by the end of the next decade? Will automation really “solve” crashes, and what other sorts of AVs are we likely to see on our roads? The Observer asked a panel of experts about the likely realities and practicalities of driving in the year 2030.
Will I be a driver or a passenger?
You’ll have a choice, says Dr Nick Reed, academy director at transport consultancy TRL. “If you want to drive an MG and enjoy that, you’ll be able to. Or if you want to prepare for a business meeting during your two-hour journey, you’ll be able to do that too. Automation systems give us choices.”
Nikolaus Lang, of the Boston Consulting Group’s Centre for Digital in Automotive, argues it will depend on the vehicle you’re in. “By 2030, you’ll be a ‘controlling passenger’ in your private self-driving car and you’ll be a ‘complete passenger’ in a robo-taxi.”
Will it still make sense to own a car or will I rent one (on demand)?
Instead of today’s car ownership model, we are far more likely to rely on “mobility as a service” by 2030, says Boland. “Imagine an Uber-like service you can summon at the touch of a button, but without a driver. Renting is not necessarily the right word – consumers will buy a service like using an Uber today, but with a wider range of vehicle configurations to suit different types of travel – family outings, long-distance sleeper travel, or shared commutes.”
However, Lang points out that there’s a clear difference between a young urban population, for whom owning cars makes little sense, and the millions of suburbanites with families, who will probably still opt to own.
Will there still be crashes?
A 2008 survey by the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that human error is the critical reason for 93% of crashes, says Boland. “When you eliminate human error, our roads become dramatically safer: no more drink-driving, phone calls at the wheel, carelessness, inattention or plain bad driving. Clearly there needs to be adequate industry testing to ensure that AVs are safe for all other road users, but we can look forward to far safer roads as human drivers become a thing of the past.”
Will all cars be electric?
“I don’t think all of them will be electric by 2030,” says Danny Shapiro, senior director at NVIDIA, whose AI computer platform powers the supercomputer in Tesla vehicles. “Virtually every startup is looking at electric, and you have ever greater electric and hybrid focus from German, Japanese and US [manufacturers]. But at the same time there’s still a huge oil infrastructure. And, at least for the next four years, there’s a very pro-oil administration in the US.”
Yet Bosch is developing a lithium-ion solid state battery that they hope will double the range of electric vehicles at half the cost of today’s batteries, which Steffen Hoffmann, the corporation’s UK president, believes will increase take-up among those who live in the suburbs and beyond. “We have a projection that by 2025, globally 15% of vehicles are going to have an electric component, whether that’s a pure electric vehicle, a plug-in hybrid or full hybrid,” he says. “For western Europe, that percentage would obviously be higher.”
The Honda NeuV concept vehicle at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Photograph: David Mcnew/AFP/Getty Images
Will there still be driving tests?
“Yes,” says Reed. “But they might be very different, with different layers. Just as you have an automatic and a manual gearbox test today, there might be an automated driving test which may only entitle you to ‘drive’ a certain type of vehicle that has certain automation systems, rather than any vehicle. Drivers will need to understand how to operate those systems – so there may also be different skills required as part of the test.”
Will there be less gridlock?
“With a heterogeneous mix of vehicle configurations and on-demand service delivery, autonomous vehicles will enable a higher density of passengers per road mile,” says Boland. “Also, because AVs can travel safely closer together, and with less braking and accelerating than human drivers, traffic will flow more smoothly and congestion will decrease. On motorways more vehicles will be able to fit safely into the same length of road, effectively increasing capacity”.
Shapiro adds that another key cause of congestion is accidents. “Even if [the accident] isn’t blocking lanes, the traffic slows down to see what’s going on. So self-driving cars will not only enable more efficient flow, but they’ll remove the accident side of congestion [as there will be fewer of them].”
Will automated vehicles be vulnerable to hackers?
By definition, a driverless car has more control units, computing power, lines of code, and wireless connections with the outside world than a regular car today, which is why it’s more vulnerable to hackers, explains Andy Birnie, systems engineering manager at NXP Semiconductors. “A hacker can potentially take control of the car, through exploitation of a weakness, and could cause the vehicle to refuse to start, or to crash, or it could exploit the privacy of the driver, and [their] data, including financial information.”
However, a shift in the approach to security is under way, he says. “There is now more focus on the basics – applying good fundamental security to the critical areas including the interfaces that connect the vehicle to the external world; gateways, which separate safety critical systems from other car and infotainment systems; and networks that provide secure communication between control units – there can be over 150 in an autonomous vehicle.” In addition, major advances to security include “over-the-air” software updates that can patch vulnerabilities seamlessly in real time, Birnie says.
Will I still need insurance (as a vehicle owner)?
“Yes,” says Niall Edwards, partner at international law firm Kennedys. Fully autonomous vehicles are likely to be considered a different class of vehicle that requires additional compulsory insurance cover, he says.
“The most likely product will be a package underwritten by a motor insurer that the manufacturer offers at the point of purchase, use or hire.” One possibility is that new vehicles fitted with advanced-driver technology will automatically come with a form of product liability and extended cover provided by the manufacturer.
The good news, says Allianz UK’s Glen Clarke, is that because semi- and fully autonomous cars are expected to lead to a fall in accidents, we are likely to see a drop in premiums. “The price you pay will be much more influenced by the technical capabilities of the car as opposed to estimations of the riskiness of the driver.”
How will the law adapt to autonomous vehicles?
Currently, UK law anticipates the existence of a “driver” who is in control of the vehicle at all times, says Rachel Moore, also a partner at Kennedys. Regulations on vehicle use will therefore need to be revised to allow the use of automotive technology without a driver and – crucially – to ensure that the technology is maintained correctly.
To start with, Moore continues, the Road Traffic Act (1988) is likely to be amended to include product liability for automated vehicles. “Other changes will be required, including to the Highway Code and international regulations on vehicle use. We may also see changes to the MOT to check roadworthiness.”
Do AVs reduce the risks for pedestrians and cyclists?
We’re only at the start of understanding how pedestrians and cyclists will interact with a vehicle that doesn’t have a human driver at the controls, says Reed. “Whether a pedestrian will be able to detect whether a car is automated or not, and adapt their behaviour accordingly, we still don’t know.”
Lang argues that there’s a risk, initially at least, that pedestrians and cyclists may try to “test” AVs to see how they react. “In Singapore, they are currently testing autonomous vehicles in public parks and they tell us that the large majority of incidents [near misses] are not due to the vehicles malfunctioning, but to people jumping in front of the cars to test whether they stop in time.”
Mixed traffic carries risk, he continues, just as there may be risks associated with behavioural patterns we cannot foresee. “As with any new technology, there will be failures and even fatalities, but the overall benefits – in terms of [estimated] 90% fewer accidents, 40% less congestion, up to 80% less emissions, and 50% of parking space saved – are so substantial that the technological development will prevail.”
What other autonomous vehicles might we see on our roads?
From vertical take-off and landing “flying car” prototypes to “sidewalk robots” and delivery drones, by 2030 our roads and pavements may have begun to resemble a scene from Blade Runner.
“Driverless trucks are already being tested around the world, with Daimler testing on public roads in the US and Germany in 2016,” says Boland. Bosch meanwhile, envisages that a truck will become “a 40-tonne smart device on wheels” by 2025. “[The trucks] will receive all the data they need in real time from the Bosch IoT cloud, including information on the route, congestion, detours, and unloading facilities at the destination,” says Hoffmann. “This will allow the driver to get on with other things [such as processing shipping documents], while the truck drives itself.”
Car v tech giants: who will win?
Today’s AV sector is a crowded space. It’s estimated that at least 33 tech and auto corporations, ranging from Apple to Chinese bus manufacturer Yutong – via the likes of Audi, BMW, Google, Honda, Intel, Tesla, Uber and Volkswagen – are currently developing AV technology.
With the $2tn global car industry in the throes of transformation due to a perfect storm of digitisation, AI/automation and changes in consumer behaviour – such as the rise of on-demand taxi services in urban centres – it’s not difficult to see why car manufacturers, tech companies and investors are scrambling for territory, fearful of being left out. “All this change creates both risk and opportunity for incumbents,” says GP Bullhound’s Sven Raeymaekers. So who does he see coming out on top?
“Some pundits claim that since the car industry has historically only focused on the internal combustion engine and shell design, it has no chance against the tsunami of software moving towards their shores. But so many industries have already suffered from this onslaught, and the automakers have no plans to see history repeat itself,” he says. “Across the board, major players – Renault-Nissan, Ford, BMW, Daimler and GM, to name a few – are investing in and developing their own technologies, hiring talent or acquiring startups. From GM investing $500m in Lyft to the creation of Ford Smart Mobility, every single big manufacturer is looking to innovate and adapt.”
Besides, any notion of a race between tech firms and traditional car makers is a false perception, argues Accenture’s Luca Mentuccia. He predicts a surge of strategic cooperation instead. “We will see even more cross-industry partnerships for autonomous driving in the future in which car makers and a large range of tech firms from chipmakers to big data specialists, telcos and mobility platforms will work together.”