driverless cars FEATURE

From the trucking industry to Uber, the automotive industry is alive with talk about letting robots take the wheel.

There’s a scene missing from all those flash auto ads parading across our screens. You get the open roads, the panoramic curves, the grip of tire on tarmac. But you don’t get to see the stressed driver trying to squeeze their shiny vehicle into a tight parking spot.

No surprise: parking is the part of driving that even the most hardened petrolhead detests. But if you lay your hands on a Tesla then you need not worry about it any longer. In January, the Californian carmaker announced a feature called Summon, which allows the car to park itself.

Fully driverless cars are fast becoming a reality. The application comes on top of an already extensive array of autopilot features, including automatic steering, speed, and lane changing. In fact, a Tesla can practically drive itself. But in that respect, Tesla isn’t really leading the pack. Fully driverless cars are fast becoming a reality.

See also: A new kind of smart car

Take Google’s self-driving car program, which has been running since 2009. The search engine giant’s prototype electric vehicles can not only get about without the need for a driver, but can even take care of their own power requirements using a wireless charging system.

So far Google’s cars have been involved in 11 accidents: all caused by others. A low accident rate is perhaps to be expected when you replace error-prone, easily distracted human drivers with machines.

But reduced collision rates are just one of a long list of potential benefits with driverless cars, according to Brandon Schoettle, project manager for Sustainable Worldwide Transportation at the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute.  

“The main benefits [of driverless cars] are expected to be improved safety, reduced congestion, improved travel times, increased access to personal transportation, greater convenience, and the ability to share a vehicle more readily with other users,”

Schoettle says.

As if that weren’t enough, increased driving efficiency is likely to mean driverless cars will have a smaller environmental footprint than today’s gas-guzzlers. And even more so if, as is the case with Google and Tesla, the new models are all electric.

The numerous benefits of having robots at the wheel has led to strong interest from the trucking and supplemental transportation industries, and has prompted Travis Kalanick, CEO at Uber, to press ahead with plans for driverless vehicles within his rideshare service.

“It makes sense for Uber and other taxi-like services to show an interest in this technology,” says Schoettle. “The ability to more efficiently schedule and assign pickups could improve significantly with self-driving vehicles.”

And while Google’s cars look like something out of Toy Story, the impact that driverless vehicles could have on the traditional auto industry is deadly serious, according to some estimates.

Wall Street analyst Brian Johnson, managing director of Barclays Capital, believes sales from US automotive original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) could fall by 40 percent in the next 25 years as families switch from multi-car ownership to sharing a single driverless car.

“GM and Ford would need to reduce North American production by up to 68 percent and 58 percent, respectively,” he says

In a research note, Johnson compares the threat facing the auto industry today to that seen by horse-drawn transport from cars in 1920, a year he describes as ‘peak horse’. Schoettle agrees the future is increasingly looking driverless.

“I think we will see [driverless cars] in use one day,” he says. “The question, of course, is when? Right now it is still difficult to say who will lead production. Traditional automotive OEMs such as Audi, Daimler, and Delphi are among those taking the lead."

But it is a technology firm that has “accumulated more miles by far than anyone else to date,” he says; “99 percent of all miles driven by self-driving vehicles have been driven by Google vehicles.”

As a company already famous for its maps, there might be some comfort in letting Google guide your journey. However, you won’t have to search far for an alternative, notes Schoettle: “As each day passes, more and more companies are getting involved.”


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About Jason Deign @DeigninSpain

Jason Deign is a Barcelona-based business writer, journalist and author.