Even though they’re hardly seen on the road, self-driving cars have been the talk of the town for so long that they already seem like a technology of the past. Google has been working on one for years. Apple is supposedly working on one too. And then there is speculation that everyone from Uber to Tesla could join this prodigal race.
Before you start dreaming of hopping into the passenger’s seat with your favorite latte and a newspaper, let’s run you through this potentially revolutionary technology.
There are mainly three things required to turn a regular car into an automated one, according to Sridhar Lakshmanan,a self driving auto expert and an engineering professor at the University of Michigan – Dearborn. The first is a GPS system; a common feature in many automobiles today. The second, is a system to recognize dynamic conditions on the road. And the third is a way to turn the data from these two systems into action on your ride. “What the autonomous system is supposed to achieve, in its full maturity, is the best of a computer, which is able to process large reams of data, and the ability of a human being to be adaptive in a new or known environment,” says Lakshmanan.
While GPS may seem like a no brainer, it’s actually a vital part of a self driving car’s overarching technology. This system, which essentially is like Google Maps, defines the ‘mission’ of the autonomous vehicle by setting the start and end point of the drive, often better than humans.
However, GPS alone is not enough to make a smart car. The reality of the road includes dynamics like detours, traffic and other obstacles. “Autonomous driving requires a second level of intelligence with the ability to fill in the additional details in the map,” says Lakshamanan. This system is a ‘Differential GPS,’ that uses a myriad of technologies such as radar and cameras to detect the ever changing variables that surround it.
Cameras, let the car’s computers see what’s around it and radars helps the vehicle to see up to 100 meters away in the dark, rain, snow or the other vision-impairing circumstances. The lasers are responsible for continuously scanning the world around the car, and providing the vehicle with a continuous, 3D omnidirectional view of its surroundings.Last but not the least, the autonomous vehicle has to take all these data and turn them into actions, like steering, acceleration, or hitting the brakes. This is typically done by what’s called the ‘Controlled Area Network’(CAN) bus. This in-vehicle electronic network is no ‘eureka’ as the feature had already been introduced for decades. It thus concludes that autonomous vehicles of the future aren’t much different, mechanically, than the conventional cars we’re driving today!
Keeping the technical information aside for a while, let’s see what really ignited the idea after all. Ride sharing and car sharing, brought about a renaissance in the commuting ecosystem. On demand cab apps like Uber, Ola and so on, Ride sharing startups like Tripda, BlaBlaCar, and car ownership-sharing, like Getaround, DrivNow, Car2Go etc. are paving their way for this upcoming market.
Given to the technological advancements, we can ascertain that one doesn’t need to own a car to complete a journey. The tendency of owning a personal car is eventually fading because of the availability of paid vehicles at reasonable prices. This factor gives a major fillip to the increase in demand of this novel product.
At a Silicon Valley Forum event in Palo Alto, experts predicted that self-driving cars will be rolling out within 5-10 years.
Another key driving factor which would play a pivotal role in promoting this technology would be the fall in the rate of road accidents. According to a data published on the Official Google Blog in August 2012,Google had declared that they had completed over 300,000 autonomous-driving miles (500,000 km) accident-free. Stanford’s Stefan Heck, one of the keynote speakers of the above mentioned event stated,“The leading cause of death for 25-40 year old is human driven cars”, demonstrating the market need for safe and efficient transport. The potential impact of this on the society would be astounding.
According to Morgan Stanley, ‘Four Phase Self Driving Development Program’, completely autonomous vehicles, will start rolling out to the masses in 5-10 years. According to the speakers at a Personalized Car event hosted by SVForum, there would be mainly 4 phases when it comes to the evolution of self-driving cars (see maturation chart, courtesy of Morgan Stanley, below).
The speakers discussed the four phases of self driving car automation at the most basic level, driver-assist features, like Tesla’s autopilot. The second phase, which we are presently, is where cars can self drive along with human fail-safes, like the Google self-driving car we see zooming around Silicon Valley. In the subsequent phases, we can expect to see cars transporting people, without assistance and later the need of human drivers will be eliminated altogether.
But there are news of adopting this technology, even faster than predicted. According to a post, the Netherlands may be the first country to operate a self driving shuttle in public traffic. The executive council of Dutch ministers, has given the green light for running two driverless shuttles in the Dutch city of Wageningen starting December 2015. The electric shuttles will carry about 8 persons from a train station to the university on a stretch of about 6km on public roads with a maximum speed of 50km/h. Although these will be test drives, the shuttles will operate autonomously without safety drivers on board. If everything works out well, the world’s first fully autonomous shuttles could make history in the Netherlands in December!
Though it seems like living a sci-fi movie, where you see technology doing most of the work for us, there are a lot of collateral social implications that might surface, thus, forcing us to give it a second thought. One of the prominent barriers to autonomous vehicle growth is the question of liability- ‘Who’s to be blamed at an event of autonomous vehicle crash; the occupants, the OEM, the supplier, the OS or someone else?’ Other potential issues which come up from time to time include- gaining consumer acceptance, infrastructure, government regulations, and ethical issues.
Some of the prominent take-aways on how it will affect our society as deciphered by Morgan Stanley are as follows:
- Auto OEMs & Suppliers: Autonomous driving capability can revolutionize the auto industry by shifting the ‘value’ of the car away from primarily hardware component, to a software component as well, thereby making room for new players to enter and forcing the existing players to cede share and reinvent themselves.
- Contemplating a new revenue model that can leverage the new ‘drive time’ content opportunity within the automobile.
- Freight Transportation: According to the report by Morgan Stanley, autonomous and semi autonomous driving technology will be adopted far faster by the cargo markets as compared to passenger markets. It estimates a potential savings to the freight transportation industry at $168 billion annually. This would give rise to some collateral implications which would include competitive advantage to large and well capitalized fleets.
- Media; TV and OOH: Driverless vehicles have the potential to significantly increase the total media consumption, generating over $5 billion of net media revenue according to the report, courtesy of liberated drive time, TV being the largest beneficiary on a total dollar basis. As likely relative time share losers, roughly 10-15% of radio and recorded music revenues could be at risk.
- Another beneficiary would be OOH (Out of Home Advertising), given the newly liberated driver may have more capacity to view outdoor advertising, though outdoor ads have to be more captivating to get the drivers attention.
- Telecom Equipment: As of today, connected cars are a modest near term revenue opportunity, but this could rise to a staggering $100 billion with the rise of autonomous driving. According to the report, Towers should benefit from the carrier capex requirements of a higher-capacity, broader coverage network, further adding to the potential duration of revenue growth.
- Software: The newbie in town has mainly three principal areas of opportunity:
- Short Term: A sudden increase in demand for complex software in auto designing and manufacturing
- Long Term: Standardization of custom-built software on packaged platforms and managing ‘big data’ resulting from increased sensors in vehicles.
- Insurance: As the autonomous cars have shown promising results during the testing phase, insurance prices are likely to decline due to lower accident frequency. However, accident severity costs may continue to sour as technological complexities rises.
- Medical: Autonomous vehicles should have limited impact on hospital revenues as only 8% of car accidents result in an inpatient admission. (Data: US centric, Morgan Stanley Research)
- Car Rental: According to the report, two highly polarizing scenarios are plausible –
- Transformation of Cars into workplaces or leisure venues could increase the benefits of private ownership, thus affecting the rental companies
- The fleet management/customer service opportunities in the world of roving autonomous car could be significant
For a more detailed read, please view the complete report here.
Below is a snapshot from the report highlighting some potential beneficiaries, or , as Morgan Stanley quotes ‘The Autonomous 40’
Whatever we may speculate, but the truth is the technology, thought to be futuristic has suddenly become the present. It is here and is here to stay and change our lives forever. The key finding is that the startups focused on this space will also need to adjust their respective business models to adopt automation and prepare people to slowly eliminate from the driving process. Taking into the fact that Uber will be creating self driving cars and that Google will be adding ride-hailing apps to summon their self driving cars, we can see how things are going to be in the future.
For a more detailed read on the way this technology is going to impact the society, please go through the presentation below and provide your valuable feedbacks.