30 Jul 19

Autonomous vehicles, (when) are they coming? 

With GM Cruise postponing the commercial launch of its self-driving Bolt, the question when autonomous cars are actually coming - if at all - stirs more debate than ever.  

Various car makers and tech companies are dedicated to the (commercial) development of autonomous cars, yet none of them made it so far beyond pilot projects, making us question if and when autonomous cars will hit the roads.

The amount of money that has been invested so far in the development of autonomous cars is mind-blowing. From car makers like Tesla and Volvo to ride hailing companies Uber, Lyft and Didi, all the way through to tech giants such as Waymo and Apple and e-commerce monsters Amazon and Ali Baba: they have billions of dollars in investment between them. Hence, autonomous cars are definitely on their way, but the obstacles prove to be greater than expected. 

1. Higher than expected investment costs

Many car makers already acknowledged that building autonomous cars consumes more money (and time) than they initially expected. That is why Navya has decided to cease the development of its self-driving shuttles, for instance. The only way forward seems to be sharing of R&D information and creating partnerships. Volkswagen AG and Ford Motor Co are teaming up through the self-driving technology company Argo AI, while BMW AG and Daimler AG included the development of autonomous cars in their broader partnership on mobility modes of the future. 

2. Demanding safety requirements

One of the most time and money consuming aspects of developing autonomous cars is the safety aspect. How can you make a driverless car as safe as possible and guarantee that it increases instead of decreases overall road safety?

Cruise CEO Dan Ammann said that they would launch a commercial self-driving ride-hailing service when it was sure the vehicles would be safe. In a post on Medium, he added “when you’re working on the large-scale deployment of mission critical safety systems, the mindset of ‘move fast and break things’ certainly doesn’t cut it’. 

3. No technological standard

One of the main obstacles is the development of a reliable sensor system. Most companies, such as Ford, GM Cruise, Uber and Waymo, prefer to work with Lidar sensors, which are expensive. Elon Musk stated that Lidar as a fool’s errand, hence none of the autonomous Tesla’s will be equipped with Lidar, but with its own sensor technology, which it assumes to be more reliable, safer and cheaper as it only exists of radar, GPS, maps and other cameras and sensors.

4. Restrictive legislation

GM Cruise is not the only company considering safety issues as the main challenge of the AV generation. As a matter of fact, all driverless pilot projects out there are still operating with a safety driver, not only due to the technological safety aspect, but to legislation as well. 

Although in exceptional situations some pilot projects got a permit to test without a safety driver, in most countries it is illegal to have a car without a driver on public roads. Not only because of safety issues, but also for moral and accountability reasons. 

For instance, when there is no physical driver in the car, who is liable in case of an accident? The tech company behind the radars, the OEM that built the vehicle, the back-up safety monitor who manages the vehicles remotely, or the owner of the car, even though he is not ‘driving’ it?

5. Lack of social acceptance 

This kind of moral questions are not only asked by legislators, but by road users, car owners and drivers as well. The general public seems not yet ready to accept driverless cars on public roads before they have a proven safety record and every legal and liability aspect is covered. 

In conclusion, considering the financial, technological, legislative and moral challenges, autonomous vehicles are unlikely to materialise this year. It will take a long time before all the obstacles are cleared. We wouldn't be surprised to see the first AV take to the road in China: it has the money, the knowhow, a booming ride hailing market and the ability to pass laws quickly. 

Authored by: Fien Van den steen