It’s obvious that the automobile industry is on the cusp of a technological revolution. Manufacturers and technology companies are working together to reinvent the automobile, much like the way Apple reinvented itself from a computer company to a cultural force or even how Madonna has remained a media icon by constantly adapting to new trends.
Although new technologies and consumer markets are still in their gestation stage, Ford, for example, is making major investments that will transform it from a company that just makes cars to one that touches all aspects of mobility.
Technology companies see a driverless world of autonomous or robotic vehicles as a software and artificial intelligence play. For them, the car is a platform, a commodity, like a cell-phone body. You can get the car body anywhere; the real smarts are in the software. The car may be the ultimate mobile device.
As the value of each vehicle becomes more dependent upon the software it contains, tech companies may be in a better position to capture this value than the automakers. New technologies are redefining boundaries between software firms and the lumbering dinosaurs of the automobile industry.
Opinions differ as to when widespread adoption of fully autonomous and commercially viable vehicles will occur. They could dot our roadways in five-to-ten years but saturation will take several decades.
Market penetration may not be uniform; it could start in trucks, for example, before private cars, or even as part of an on-demand commercial ride sharing fleet. In any case, it is not too early to start planning for the roadway management challenges that will be created by autonomous trucks and cars sharing the roads with driver-operated vehicles.
Autonomous vehicle proponents claim they hold the potential to dramatically reduce traffic casualties by eliminating human error. Activities like speeding and driving while texting are deadly. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says human error is a factor in 94 percent of fatal crashes. According to the National Safety Council, as many as 40,000 people died in motor vehicle crashes last year, a 6 percent increase over 2015. An estimated 4.6 million people were seriously injured.
When we begin seeing fully driverless cars hinges as much on the regulatory environment as advances in self-driving technology. Autonomous vehicles operating without a steering wheel, brake pedals, and human intervention pose questions about whether regulations can catch up to technological advances.
Market participants argue that realizing the safety benefits of autonomous vehicles will require a single national standard, not 50 sets of rules. Automakers complain that states are moving ahead with their own regulations, creating the potential for a confusing “patchwork” of laws under which autonomous vehicles operate. As of December, California, Florida, Michigan, Nevada, Utah, and the District of Columbia had enacted laws authorizing autonomous vehicle testing under certain conditions. Washington, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Texas have active testing programs but no legislation.
On the same day Uber started to test its self-driving Volvos near its Bay Area headquarters, the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles ordered the firm to stop because its cars did not have the proper registration for such testing. Uber loaded the cars onto a self-driving truck and sent them to Arizona.
Michigan now allows companies to test self-driving vehicles without steering wheels, pedals or a human that can take over in an emergency. In contrast, California has a rule that self-driving vehicles can only hit the road with a safety driver.
It is uncertain how soon fully autonomous vehicles will enter the mainstream. When they do, avoiding the pushback that, for example, on demand mobility firms such as Uber and Lyft have faced in a variety of cities will require clarifying the proper role of all levels of government within the regulatory landscape. If autonomous vehicles are safer than their driver-operated counterparts, it is imperative that regulators not risk preventable injuries and deaths by unnecessarily delaying their deployment.
Originally Published: March 4, 2017