Autonomous Vehicles - Who’s Driving the Change?

Driverless transport represents an opportunity to disrupt current unsustainable models, among other benefits. However, while industry is convinced, there’s still a long road ahead in terms of public appetite and confidence.   

The UK recently got its first real-world testing facilities for connected autonomous vehicles (CAVs), hailed as essential to achieving the Department of Transport’s goal of seeing them on UK roads by 2021.

A few other countries and some US states have also adapted legislation to allow public space testing. The race is on, with everyone from auto manufacturers to tech giants like Google to specialist startups competing. Some US$50 billion has been invested in developing the tech in the last 5 years, 70% from outside the auto sector, and ride-hailing services like Uber are particularly keen to replace paid drivers with CAVs,

KPMG recently ranked 20 countries’ readiness for CAVs, with The Netherlands coming top. Global Head of Infrastructure Richard Threlfall believes, “The question is no longer whether but when all road vehicles become fully autonomous.”

CAVs have many potential benefits, but require a shift to flexible, sharing economy models of use, ownership and insurance to fully realize them. Cars spend 95% of their time parked and are occupied by an average of just 1.2 people when moving. If owners rent them out for ride-hailing or deliveries when not in use, this should mean fewer vehicles overall, freeing up parking for public and green space or housing. Automated commuting could also make rural living more attractive, further reducing pressure on cities. Commuters can work, study or even sleep instead, leading to increased productivity. CAVs can also improve mobility for the elderly or disabled.  

However, the public has several concerns, including safety, and incidents like Uber’s fatal crash with a pedestrian have dented confidence. While human error causes the majority of 1.35 million annual road deaths, like air disasters CAV accidents loom disproportionately large in the public imagination. But since road deaths cost most countries 3% of their GDP, reducing them has clear economic benefits. Also, assuming CAVs are powered by renewables, they benefit both public health and the environment.

Other issues include cybersecurity and hacking, privacy, personal data and price. Deloitte found consumers would welcome some government oversight of CAV development, and aren’t keen to pay much for the increased connectivity necessary to improve road safety. Another concern is human obsolescence: when automated trucks deliver our goods, what will truckers do?

In the end, people may be won over in small steps rather than giant leaps. While surrendering complete control to a machine is still a radical idea, new cars already offer features like cruise control and automatic braking. User demographics are also key: Shotl recently found senior citizens believe CAVs to be impossible within their lifetimes. As in many areas, younger generations of digital- or sharing economy-natives are likely to come on board first. This is important, since unless we move away from individual ownership, the benefits of reduced congestion and increased space may be unattainable.

With this in mind, significant opportunities exist for multiple-occupancy, demand-responsive transit, and new companies like Local Motors, Easy Mile and Sensible4 are testing CAV minibuses. Shotl is collaborating with Sensible4 as part of the FABULOS program, providing technology for ride-booking, vehicle dispatch and optimized dynamic routing.

CAVs have the potential to improve mobility, public health and the natural and urban environments. To fully take advantage of this, though, policymakers need to develop new transport and employment strategies, adapt legislation, address data security and privacy issues and involve all sections of society.  

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