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Is 2017 the year of the driverless breakthrough?

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Who will be the first? How much will they cost? What does that mean for licensing and insurance? So many questions…

Throughout 2016, not a month went by without the announcement of a new driver-less automobile trial or a new record claim. The world seems to be embracing the technology to create autonomous vehicles, with all the big names you’d expect present and correct. The race is on!

However, let’s not get too excited. Each report was followed with the same caveat that this wondrous future of being able to relax while your car picks you up after a long work day or night out is still a little while away. The question we all want answered is: who will be the first to market with a fully autonomous vehicle?

Well, it is likely that early adopters will be the commercial and public sectors. Autonomous long haul deliveries and public service vehicles such as street sweepers and snowploughs all offer huge advantages in efficiency and environmental benefits. While the publicity surrounding it was huge, the Uber/Otto trial with Budweiser offers an exciting glimpse of this in the real world.

Passenger cars will take longer, but the benefits to both the motorist and the environment are worth chasing. A report by Vendigital claims that eventually car ownership could decrease by 95%, saving each family £3000 a year.

Excited manufacturers and technology giants are suggesting they will have market-ready vehicles in the next two to three years. Tesla’s Autopilot is already well-known and Volvo will have 100 ‘self-driving’ cars on the road this year as well. Full automation is probably still five years away and mass adoption will take another 10-15 years (which in itself opens up issues with roads full of mixed human- and computer-controlled vehicles).

There are many more questions between here and there that also need addressing, and the whole topic poses some interesting challenges that could erode the appeal of mass transit. Does traffic congestion cease to be a problem if the time is no longer considered wasted as you answer emails, participate in meetings via Skype, shop online or help your kids with their homework as you wait?

Driver-less vehicles will also almost certainly be safer as human error accounts for 90% of road traffic accidents, according to the ABI. Drunk or distracted driving and speeding will become a thing of the past, potentially saving trillions of (inset currency of your choice here)in insurance claims and related healthcare costs. No-one has the answers, but insurance provider AXA has a helpful Q&A around some of the issues.

Yet while technology such as GPS mapping, radar and lidar to make all this happen exists – and has for some time – what is currently less clear is what the laws and regulations governing the usage of driver-less vehicles will look like. Issues such as licensing, liability and cyber security remain unanswered – but it is only a matter of time.

So considering for a moment that we may well be the last generations that learn to drive a car and that autonomous vehicles could open up safe and efficient new mobility options for those unable to currently take advantage of the private car – children, the elderly, the incapacitated or those with disabilities – where does that leave mass transit?

Adapted from an editorial in Tramways & Urban Transit – Issue 950, February 2017 (www.tautonline.com)

Photo by Automobile ItaliaCC BY 2.0


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