Are we ready to undergo the next massive social and industrial revolution, as we prepare to get in our car and, in stead of driving, just order the computer to get us to our destination as we do other stuff… like work, connect or simply relax?
The stuff of science fiction is – according to automakers and tech companies – right around the corner, but all this will lead to real, serious and massive consequences.
The avoidance of accidents will cut insurance costs, while fuel savings from more efficient long-distance cruising and congestion avoidance are big potential pluses. Software for in-car applications to entertain drivers with new time on their hands will boom. Radio and recorded music businesses will lose a captive audience. Railroad and short-haul airlines will suffer. If you can move from your home to your destination, door-to-door in the comfort of your car, who’s going to take the train or plane? Highway speed limits are likely to be raised significantly when the new technology demonstrates it can eliminate accidents, cutting journey times and adding to the virtuous circle.
Back in September during the IAA, Mercedes CEO Dieter Zetsche was driven on to the stage sitting in the back of an otherwise empty Mercedes S class. Zetsche jumped out of the back seat with typical self-confident aplomb, but you have to wonder how hard it must have been to persuade Mercedes’ insurance company that the car wouldn’t ignore instructions and plough into the crowd and cause mayhem.
Before the end of the decade, these cars that can drive themselves will start to go on sale, initially costing about $10,000 extra. According to a report from investment bank Morgan Stanley, this is not just another gimmick like ABS brakes, 9-speed automatics or computerized road-side parking.
“This is not a toy. The social and economic implications are enormous. Beyond the practical benefits, we estimate autonomous cars can contribute $1.3 trillion in annual savings to the U.S. economy alone, with global savings estimated at over $5.6 trillion,” Morgan Stanley said.
According to the Frost & Sullivan (F&S) consultancy, autonomous cars are being pursued by most major car manufacturers with Mercedes in the lead, followed by other Germans like BMW and Volkswagen. Toyota’s Lexus is at the forefront too, but Ford is also up there and closing fast. F&S also ads Google is up there too.
Morgan Stanley said VW’s Audi , Mercedes, BMW and Nissan are leading vehicle manufacturers for self-driving, while suppliers like Delphi, Continental, Autoliv and TRW are spending heavily. Technology companies Google, IBM and Cisco are in the field too.
There are some complicated issues to sort out though before cars that drive themselves become ubiquitous. If a computerised car is involved in a crash, the question of liability will have to be settled. Will it be the occupants, the manufacturer, or the supplier? Software security will be a major issue too. Imagine the mayhem if an Al Qaeda operative managed to penetrate the software of a driverless car.