Driverless car revolution about to move into top gear

Amongst the business headlines of 2017, the prospect of driverless cars has been a dominant feature, with its promise of an automotive revolution reaching far beyond the most efficient means of getting from A to B.

 The ‘self-driving revolution’ is no longer a far-off technological notion, with many manufacturers aiming to have autonomous vehicles in the marketplace within the next four years.

Earlier this year, Ford announced an investment of $1billion (€857m) in robotics company, Argo AI, to have a fleet of self-driving cars by 2021.

“Ford is taking a lead on the autonomous platform and the design of the vehicle, and we’re taking a lead on the virtual driver system. We just need to make sure we end up in the same spot,” said Argo AI chief Bryan Salesky. Similarly,

Daimler plans to present its Mercedes S-Class S500 Intelligent Drive as “the technical conditions for autonomous driving are already well established.” The company is also aiming to have driverless trucks on the roads by 2020.

Last year, General Motors (GM) invested $600m (€514m) in self-driving start-up Cruise Automation, followed by Volkswagen, BMW and Hyundai into the same marketplace. Volvo’s announcement that it is entering the electric car market is bolstered through a partnership with US tech firm Nvidia to develop advanced systems and software for self-driving vehicles.

In the US last week, the House Energy and Commerce Committee voted unanimously to advance the first legislation on driverless cars. The National Federation of the Blind’s executive director Anil Lewis said: “If it is designed correctly, and if the vehicles are accessible, it is going to create an improved ability to travel that doesn’t currently exist for the 1.3 million legally blind people in the US.”

However, the emerging self-driving revolution is not just about cars — it will incorporate a rich new landscape of IT, robotics and connectivity to create a whole new economy with opportunities far beyond the road or highway. Autonomous driving and smart technologies will see the dawn of a new ‘passenger economy’ rising from €700m in 2035 to €6bn by 2050, according to a study by Intel.

“Companies should start thinking about their autonomous strategy now,” said Intel boss Brian Krzanich. “Less than a decade ago, no one was talking about the potential of a soon-to-emerge app or sharing economy because no one saw it coming. Autonomous technology will drive change across a range of industries and define a new landscape,” he said.

The Intel study predicts business use of Mobility-as-a-Service (MaaS) will generate €2.6 trillion in revenues, with consumer use of MaaS offerings expected to account for €3.1 trillion. Revenue generated from consumer use of new applications and services that will emerge, as pilotless vehicle services expand and evolve, is estimated at €170bn. The study also highlights that 585,000 lives will be saved in the self-driving decade from 2035 to 2045, with reductions in public safety costs related to traffic accidents amounting to more than €200bn.

“This technology is driving big changes,” said Kathy Winter, vice president and general manager of Intel’s Automated Driving Group. “Time will be freed up by people not driving, there will be increased productivity and new goods and services to be consumed.”

Highlights of future scenarios explored in the study include: car-venience — ranging from onboard beauty salons to touch-screen tables, remote vending and mobile health care clinics; and movable movies — media and content producers will develop custom content formats to match short and long travel times.

But the driverless economy will have its casualties. Long-haul truckers will be among the first to feel the change. In the US more than 1.7 million people work in the sector. At present, it costs approximately $4,500 to ship a truckload of goodscross-country from New York to Los Angeles, with labour amounting to 75%.

John Daly