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The race to the finish line for driverless cars

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This article is brought to you by TW White & Sons.

For some time now it’s been a case of ‘when’ and not ‘if’ driverless cars will be unleashed on our roads.  Unsuspecting members of the public may still think it’s the preserve of science fiction films and books, but the technology is rapidly being developed, and various parties are vying to get ahead in what isn’t so much of an arms race as a hands-free race.

A recent report from Navigant Research suggested that 75% of vehicles sold in 2035 will have some degree of autonomous capability. If you think that sounds far off then consider the fact that if you had a child today then it’s not a huge stretch of the imagination to think that their first car could well be, in part at least, driverless.

That could well be an out-of-date target too, especially if Google has anything to say about it.

The director of its much-publicised project, Chris Urmson, has said he is motivated to try to make the technology a standard fixture on the roads in just five years. He recently told delegates at the TED conference that he wanted to get it ready in time for when his son, who is 11 years old, takes to the roads.


Politicians eyeing up the opportunities

Politicians, too, are waking up the economic benefits of this. Just last month, Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne’s pre-election Budget earmarked £100 million to help Britain’s ‘brilliant automotive industry to stay ahead in the race to driverless technology’.

It’s no wonder that the politicians’ eyes have lit up either. This sector is predicted to be worth seriously big money and could bring a huge economic boost to whichever country forges ahead in this sector.

Business secretary Vince Cable, quoted in this piece by TW White and Sons, said: “It’s important for jobs, growth and society that we keep at the forefront of innovation. That’s why I launched a competition to research and develop driverless cars. The projects we are now funding will help to ensure we are world leaders in this field and able to benefit from what is expected to be a £900bn industry by 2025.”

Industry driving forward in the driverless car race

The cash announced by Osborne has been matched by the industry in a bid to develop a full solution that draws together the collected talents of the automotive, telecoms, IT and infrastructure sectors.

This could be the key to deciding who wins this hotly contested race. The technology may be centred on driving, but it’s not just the automotive industry leading the way.  Many of the innovations needed must come from other sectors.

The UK Government hopes the work carried out in university departments and at research centres will be decisive – and wants to create a favourable regulatory environment to foster the right environment for autonomous transport technology to grow in.

It’s also paving the way for technology to go hand in hand with our roads with the post budget announcement of an £11 billion investment in the nation’s roads, a package which includes roadside Wifi and the ability to send traffic updates to passing road users. As the ‘internet of things’ develops further, we could see this information delivered directly to our driverless cars and it’s clear that this sort of infrastructural change is another part of what will need to be a joined–up system that does not just involve the cars themselves.

A global technology race

There will be plenty of competition from elsewhere too – with the heavyweights of Germany, Japan and the US all desperate to get ahead of the pack. In America several states have made driverless cars legal – including California where the famous Google car has merrily been clocking up many thousands of miles.

Nissan carried out tests on Japanese roads in 2013, while Sweden has paved the way for Volvo to test 100 driverless vehicles, something the Scandinavian firm looks set to do in 2017.

Google driverless car - self-driving prototype 2014

Basic driverless technology already exists

Each country is clearing the way to capitalise on the technological advances in this field and governments have all been prompted by the fact that some of the technology has already started to creep in.

Several manufacturers offer a ‘traffic jam assist’ mode that allows you to just follow the car in front when stuck in a long queue without the need to man the controls. That’s the next step on from the adaptive cruise control feature on many vehicles and joins ‘self-parking’ on the list of innovations that offer a tantalising glimpse into a driverless future.

Google’s ‘Android Auto’ is blurring the lines between the old dashboard display and the computer screen – bringing Google Maps and voice control technology into your car. That’s not to say there aren’t problems to be overcome, however. Google’s Car has encountered a number of things that need to be addressed. For example, its sensors cannot always determine the difference between a rock in the road or a piece of litter that’s drifted into the carriageway so will try to drive around both in the same way.

They can’t deal with snow and heavy rain – not much good in a British winter! – and still struggle with complex situations or moments in a drive in which your human driving instincts are important.

It has to be said, though, that in the grand scheme of things these obstacles are merely minor issues that will soon be smoothed out and more and more ‘unusual’ situations are being put before the cars to get a good idea of their limitations.

Will driverless cars improve road safety?

Tesla co-founder and CEO Elon Musk reckons there may well come a time when computer-controlled cars prove to be so much better than the alternatives that humans are seen as something of a safety liability and are stopped from taking control of the wheel.

He told NVidia co-founder and CEO Jen-Hsun Hua, at that firm’s annual developer’s conference, that: “I don’t think we have to worry about autonomous cars, because that’s sort of like a narrow form of AI. It would be like an elevator. They used to have elevator operators, and then we developed some simple circuitry to have elevators just automatically come to the floor that you’re at … the car is going to be just like that.”

Morgan Stanley agrees, arguing in a recent research article: “In the not-distant future, children may not believe that their parents used to drive cars, any more than most of us today can imagine holding the reins of horse-drawn buggies. Considering how central the car is to modern life everywhere, the social and economic implications are enormous.

“Autonomous cars will offer better safety features and more efficiency. They will transform the auto industry business model, pivoting from engines, gears and wheels to software, content and ‘user experience’. Getting anywhere could literally become half the fun.”

In fact, Morgan Stanley reckons it may only be the attitudes of the public that hold their development back, give that much of the technology either exists or is on the way. It added: “Broaching the concept as something real is still met with eye-rolling and deep skepticism, even among people within the auto industry who are actively working on autonomous car technology.”

“Public opinion on self-driving cars remains split. It’s just not that easy for many people to imagine putting their lives, or the lives of their loved ones, into the passenger seat of an autonomous car. Acceptance and adoption will take time. As the technology begins to prove itself in terms of safety, reliability, savings and convenience, opinion could quickly shift from, ‘I don’t want to share the road with robots’ to ‘I don’t want to share the road with people driving their own cars’.”

This may be where the economics and politics comes into play. The benefit of jobs and employment in this industry could easily win many people over and the political benefit from being a leader in this field could be significant.

Being ahead of the game will help a country to cash in on a lucrative chunk of the market. The race is already well underway.

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