Following SBT’s April issue, we uncover some more outrageous claims made by Dr Goldman. We take a look at autonomous car technology and question whether the future of driving is closer than we think, as Goldman suggests, or still a way off?

Technology is rapidly extending past our wildest dreams, and of course who could have foreseen the developments that have taken place in the past decade? We’re quickly realising that the future we imagined is actually closer than we thought. Flying cars aside (let’s not get too ahead of ourselves) self-driving cars are coming into their own. Following on from our discussion in our February issue about the future of law, we look at some more of Dr Goldman’s claims, this month on the topic of autonomous cars. His article states: “In 2018 the first self-driving cars will appear for the public. Around 2020, the complete industry will start to be disrupted. You don’t want to own a car anymore. You will call a car with your phone, it will show up at your location and drive you to your destination.”

With 2018 just around the corner, can we really agree that this initial statement is true? Are the public so behind on the news that we are unaware of self-driving cars becoming the ‘norm’ within the next year? Of course we have all seen a shift in the way we use transport. Uber already allows for us to communicate with the nearest stranger and hop in a car with them. Equally, with the rise of public transport and increase in populations (therefore also traffic) people are using their cars less and less in cities. Paul Bentley, Retail Operations Director at Lookers commented on the idea of driverless cars, pointing out that the concept has in fact been around since the 50s, if not before:  “With car manufacturers, as well as tech companies such as Apple and Google, investing heavily in the development of this technology, we’re closer to realising this long-held dream than ever before.

“However, it is difficult to predict exactly when there will be a widespread roll-out of autonomous cars. There are a lot of factors that could affect this, such as how long it will take the technology to become affordable enough for the average consumer, and whether the public will take a while to warm to the idea of giving up some of the control they have. With the information we currently have, my best estimate would be that they will become relatively common around or after 2025.”

Rob Hunter, MD and Founder, Hunterlodge Advertising agrees that the technology isn’t far off, but also points out some societal barriers: “Developments in machine learning technologies meant that the prospect of fully autonomous vehicles has become more viable in the very near future. However, with any new technology, the prospect of not being in control is a scary idea for those of us brought up on a diet of apocalyptic ‘machines will destroy the world’ sci-fi fodder.

Paul Whitelam, Group VP, Product Marketing at ClickSoftware discussed with us how autonomous vehicles would easily improve customer service if it were taken on board by the general public, as in some ways it already is:  “In 2018 the first self-driving cars will appear for the public”. On the face of it, that’s already here. But, as we see, there is a lot of nuance in this area, not least because of the masses amounts of regulatory and legal details that still need to be smoothed out. When one considers the different legal frameworks around the world, then this will lead to a very unevenly distributed rate of adoption; but in many cases, it is not the technology that is the issue on the critical path.

So we can see that immediately we come across a lot of limitations to autonomous cars taking over the roads. It’s not just a suggestions of autonomous vehicles, it’s the suggestion that nobody will own their own car; a car will simply show up at your location and drive the distance you need. As Paul Whitelam points out, the legal details are confused at best; as Rob points out, people are inherently scared of the unknown and may not wish to relinquish control over their drive to work or drive home; and equally Paul Bentley questions the affordability.

“You will not need to park it, you only pay for the driven distance and can be productive while driving,” claims Goldman. “Our kids will never get a driver’s license and will never own a car. It will change the cities, because we will need 90-95% fewer cars for that. We can transform former parking space into parks. 1.2 million people die each year in car accidents worldwide. We now have one accident every 100,000 km, with autonomous driving that will drop to one accident in 10 million km. That will save a million lives each year.”

We at SBT struggled to get our heads around the idea that the public would, at a very basic level, actually want to give up driving. In terms of technological development, yes, the technology that puts the control in the hands of the vehicle itself is already in wide use. As Rob points out: “What many won’t realise is that most of us are already driving vehicles with some form of autonomous functionality – think ABS braking, cruise control or lane-keeping assist.”

However, even with this technology, don’t millions of us still chose to drive a manual car? Looking at the claim that nobody will even want or need to own their own car anymore soon, Paul Whitelam explained how this is in fact already happening: “Dedicated car ownership – with cars sitting idle for 90% of the time – will certainly dwindle. Calling a car on your phone already exists, and in many cases, for simple road systems in particular, technology is not the blocker. Though there is still work to be done to master the complexities of getting on and off motorways / dealing with more complex road systems, 2020 seems a very reasonable estimate. Not only does this open the way for driverless transport for the public, but the ability for workers in the service industry to be significantly more efficient during transit represents a major economic opportunity.”

From another perspective, Rob commented: “Consumer choice is an important issue here. Tech developments in other industries such as adblocking have shown that consumers are actively putting the power back in their own hands – yet the automotive market is moving towards taking away this control and personal choice. Having your own car gives most people a powerful sense of independence, so restricting this freedom will sit uncomfortably with many people. So, until hiring an autonomous car becomes ingrained in our social way of life, manufacturers will need to think carefully about the trade-off they are offering in return.”

Of course we’re seeing car manufacturers lead this change in consumer desire before our eyes. In the US, Uber for example are making huge strides towards launching their self-driving vehicles. However, they have had numerous issues with their technology. The company began testing its self-driving technology early last year, but had to halt tests due to various issues with not only the software but also legalities on the road. In December, Uber admitted a problem with the way their autonomous cars approached bike lanes, less than a week after starting to offer their self-driving cars to riders in California. ‘Problems approaching bike lanes’ is a bit of an understatement, with the safety of cyclists, and pedestrians threatened as the cars cut across bike lanes, in turn driving illegally. This prompted doubts as to whether the service could continue at all. With cyclist collisions one of the major causes of accidents and death on the roads, it’s difficult to believe claims that millions of lives will be saved by this technology – not yet anyway, and probably not by 2020.

At the end of 2016, Google launched the first public road tests for its new self-driving minivans, called the Waymo. The trials took place in California and Arizona, continuing till May this year, when we will (hopefully) know more about the future of this technology. Ford is also developing vehicles with similar on-board technology, claiming to have fully autonomous vehicles on the road by 2021. Mercedes is at the forefront of this technology with the new autonomous F 015 Luxury in Motion vehicle quite literally ‘in motion’. Nissan also recently demoed its multi-million pound prototype on a six mile course around East London.

So are these cars on track to disrupt the car industry as dramatically as Goldman suggests?

Rob Hunter comments: “Removing the need for human interaction will undoubtedly become more mainstream – although whether this will be the sole method of driving in 2020 is still up for debate.”

And we agree tend to agree on the timing. There does however seem to be huge support for the developing technology and concept. International law firm, Gowling WLG, recently published a very interesting report looking at the Autonomous Vehicles (AV) Technology sector, revealing widespread support by professional and private investors for the UK AV industry.

The report shows that over 10% of investors already claim to be already actively investing in the sector and 67% of UK investors are considering doing the same either now or in the future. In the first of a series of studies 64% of investors say they believe driverless cars will be on UK roads within 10 years – slightly different to the previously stated 3 – but lack of rules and regulations in the sector prevents almost half of all investors (47%) from making the leap.

We asked Paul Whitelam what benefit autonomous vehicles would have on a more relatable level within business: “In an autonomous vehicle, field service engineers will be guided along the optimal route to their destination. Embedded autonomous vehicle technology will ensure drivers take the fastest and safest route to their job by analysing real-time traffic and avoiding congested roads. The potential for this to reduce time spent in traffic and fuel costs, and therefore increase business productivity and profit is significant. As with Uber, autonomous vehicles used in field service will be tracked via GPS, and customers can be notified when their engineer is on the way so that they do not have to wait at home for an extended period of time. ClickSoftware’s recent global customer experience survey found that 60% of all consumers indicated that waiting a long time for a field service visit made for a bad customer experience. By tracking engineers on delivery days, customer inconvenience can be greatly reduced.”

Gowling WLG’s report looked at variations in regional data, of which there was plenty. Yorkshire and London have almost doubled the number of AV investors than anywhere else in the UK whereas Wales and Northern Ireland are the areas where the most people are considering making a future investment in the AV sector. The link between Smart Cities and AV investment is a major factor in Northern Ireland: 75% of all investors based in Northern Ireland consider the progress of Smart Cities projects a major factor to consider before making an AV investment.

Investors in the South West of England cite ‘access to expert AV market advice’ as the most important factor in deciding whether to invest and the East Midlands has the highest number of investors who desire more information about investing (78%).

The North West, on the other hand, has the least number of people currently investing in the AV sector. At the same time though, this region has more people considering making an investment than anywhere else in England. Unfortunately the South East remains a quite region in the face of this new technology.

Matt Hervey, Intellectual Property Adviser with the IP team of Gowling WLG and co-chair of its Auto Tech group gave his opinion on the findings: “Many car makers are aiming to launch vehicles with advanced self-driving functions in around 2021. The first models are likely to be aimed at the traditional taxi sector, not domestic vehicles and will acclimatise the public to mobility as a service (a job already started by Uber). 

In response to our question of whether the general public will in fact accept this technology for themselves, Matt said: Convenience will spur public acceptance and eroded resale car values may quickly discourage private ownership. This is part of a trend that predates autonomous vehicles.” He adds, agreeing with the general consensus: In the US the percentage of people with driving licences has been falling for the last three decades, especially among teenagers, and we now consume music, film, office supplies and other products on subscription models.

Going forward, Matt highlighted the changes that must occur for this technology to be both as safe as possible and efficient: There are still plenty of technical and regulatory hurdles, not least tackling cybersecurity and privacy. There must also be practical solutions to cars which can handle only 95% of the situations they meet: will they, as Nissan predicts, be controlled remotely from a new breed of call centres or must a competent driver be in the car to take over – if unlike, current test drivers, they have not fallen asleep.”

We can see a clear and unprecedented support for a more technology driven (forgive the pun) world. It seems that Goldman’s claims have some substance, in particular according to those already willing to invest in autonomous vehicle technology. But, his estimates are fairly far-fetched, with the Back-To-The-Future-esque world he sees clearly not to come quite as soon as he thinks. Car manufacturing, driving and business will change, but for now, we will wait and see.