Everyone’s talking about it. Some are eagerly anticipating it, others are quaking in their shoes at the prospect. No matter what your views, there’s no denying that more widespread autonomous driving in some form is almost upon us.
Let’s take a look at a few of the latest developments to see how close this revolutionary technology is to becoming an everyday reality.
New Tesla truck with autonomous technology
When thinking about commercial transport costs you tend to consider fuel, maintenance and the cost of the vehicle. Another significant outgoing that is largely overlooked is the driver and his or her salary. In late 2017, Tesla unveiled plans for its first commercial vehicle , the Tesla Semi.
This will be the first mass-produced electric commercial vehicle which, in itself, is no big deal for the commercial industry. What might be more significant, though, is Tesla's “Auto Pilot” which could pave the way for mass-market driverless vehicles.
So why is Tesla entering the market such a potential game changer? The simple answer is volume - using Tesla’s current vehicle parc could make a real difference. The more data available, the smarter and more refined autonomous technology can become.
Tesla entering the commercial marketplace could be the final piece in the puzzle forcing the industry to embrace autonomous technology. This marks a big step forward, but the technology needs to be tested extensively before it can become viable. For that to happen, vehicles need to do extensive miles in real world scenarios, and a partnership announced in late 2017 looks to do just that.
Uber partners with Volvo for self-drive taxis
It might sound like an odd coupling, but Volvo and Uber teamed up in 2017. Volvo has been working on autonomous technologies and Uber has a significant financial interest in anything that can reduce driver costs.
Volvo will provide an early stage technology, which Uber can build into its already significant driver infrastructure. The result is likely to push driverless technology forward at a rapid rate.
The reality, however, is that Uber and Volvo’s partnership will take some time to work out, and the most likely delays will come from legislative restrictions. In 2017, the UK at least received some good news in this regard.
UK leading the world in autonomous research
The chancellor was keen to talk about the autonomous future in his November budget, announcing that fully self-driving, robotic vehicles could be on UK roads within the next four years. Though forms of autonomous vehicles are already on our roads, and advanced trials of driverless technology started in late 2017, there are still questions around how and when such a transition will take place.
The chancellor’s public support will go some way to reassure manufacturers that investment in this sector will be worthwhile. They will just need reassurances that this support is politically stable and not likely to change in the medium to long term. Remember diesel and how it once had a role in CO₂ reduction…
Still a long way to go
There is no way to guess when driverless vehicles will become a normal thing on British roads, but we have, without question, transitioned from an ‘if’ to a ‘when’. For example, the new just-launched Audi A8 is claimed to be the first car with level 3 autonomy (Tesla only offers level 2), and level 5 ‘full’ autonomous technology is perhaps only 5-10 years away.
There are still many, many tricky challenges to overcome. Take the difficulties in engineering the ability to respond to spoken commands or hand signals or navigate roads with unclear markings, never mind roadworks with a contraflow, as just some of the long list of issues we still face.
But you can’t halt progress. Commercial vehicles appear to be leading the way with personal transport following close behind. One barrier that is often spoken about may not be such an issue after all: insurance.
In the UK, insurance company Direct Line is offering a discount to customers who use Tesla Autopilot to facilitate research into its effects. The results from this and similar studies could well see insurers reduce rates for vehicles with technologies proven to reduce accidents.
It is entirely possible that in 50 years we'll look back on self-drive vehicles the way we look back today at the introduction of seatbelts. So buckle up, because, like it or not, our autonomous future is getting ever closer.
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