The recent news that the UK government is moving forward with plans to help integrate driverless cars onto public roads could not only prompt the next seismic shift in the automotive world, but also have a wider impact on society as a whole.
Automotive Industries (AI) asked Karthikeyan Natarajan, Head of Integrated Engineering Solutions, Tech Mahindra, whether autonomous cars had moved from concept to reality.
Natarajan: Companies the world over have made huge leaps forward in getting this technology into mainstream use on public roads. Multiple experimental vehicles have been planned, with varying levels of autonomy. A Toyota Prius has manoeuvred through the streets of the United States powered by Google’s technology without a driver. During testing the cars have only ever caused two accidents. Both instances were due to human error. General Motors, Toyota, Mercedes-Benz, Volvo and Audi are all testing autonomous systems. Nissan has pledged to get a self-driving car on the road by the end of this decade. California has now issued its first 29 permits to three companies to test self-driving cars on public roads.
AI: What is the driverless car ecosystem?
Natarajan: Before we can even think about getting into an autonomous vehicle for our daily commute there are a number of challenges we must overcome. Driverless cars will require an unprecedented level of software and embedded systems. The automobile industry cannot launch beta versions and continually tweak their product based on real-time consumer feedback. There are stringent reliability and functional safety norms that keep the launch cycle for modern cars between three to five years.
As yet, there is no central governance over driverless cars and standards and regulatory frameworks are still evolving to make implementation as smooth as possible. Questions regarding regulation and legislation are numerous. Manufacturers must be ready to program and tailor their intelligent drive systems for different geographies and cultures. For instance, California has ruled that driverless cars need to have a steering wheel, so a human driver can take over at any time.
The automotive industry and governments worldwide must consider a range of economic challenges as well. There are massive infrastructure challenges that could create expensive barriers. Intelligent traffic lights, smart lanes with sensors and an automated parking infrastructure are all required to ensure autonomous vehicles can drive safely on our roads. Moreover, the vehicle insurance framework has to evolve for these changing dynamics. Handing over the controls of a car to a computer raises all sorts of questions about who has liability in the case of an accident.
There is also the issue of data security to consider: autonomous vehicles are built with advanced monitoring, sensing and tracking capabilities that could be a threat to personal privacy. Driverless cars will track your movements and provide a window into your travel behaviour. While this feature will improve vehicle performance, it creates new security concerns and risks commercial misuse.
Finally there are the socio-cultural and commercial challenges to consider. Are consumers ready to buy into the concept of a driverless car? How will the public react to being on the same road as other cars that do not have a driver? The final hurdle could actually prove to one of the most significant and time will tell if technological innovation will be matched by commercial demand.
AI: Will the end result be safer, cleaner roads?
Natarajan: If the Government, vehicle manufacturers, regulators, the legal community can work to resolve these issues, there is no doubt that driverless cars also open a whole world of opportunities. Safety is clearly a key benefit; with some 90% of all road traffic accidents caused by human error. The environmental impact caused by vehicles could be reduced, whilst advancements in hybrid and electric engines mean that an autonomous vehicle can be programmed to drive as economically as possible, while also relieving congestion. For these benefits to be fully realised, we need an agile automotive ecosystem that must create and adopt technology faster than ever before. Governments and authorities must be more proactive in developing the right laws and regulations in order to support the introduction of driverless cars and we will need massive investments in infrastructure.