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Driverless cars: Buzzword or the inevitable?

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With the increasing popularity of automation and Industry 4.0 solutions throughout the world, there are hardly any sectors that are not searching for ways to minimise human input and let machines handle everything.

Transportation is no different. For many years, the idea of eliminating human intervention from the driving process has infatuated people. However, driverless cars are still in their early prototype stage and the results are far from what was expected.

With over $120bn invested since 2017 and all the industry leaders working on the technology, you’d expect to throw away your driver’s license while buying your next car. However, that’s not the case.

The reality is disappointing and no one wants to talk about it: Driverless cars still have a long journey before they may become a part of our daily routine.  

However, some people have started to wonder if we still need it. What does removing human drivers from the equation achieve, apart from showing off what automation can do for the industry? What problems are being solved with this technology?

One of the biggest problems for driverless cars is how they deal with anything unexpected. Starting from the traditional trolley problem to other situations you see on the road. There are billions of permutations and a significant number of variables in the real world.  

No matter how advanced any automation system gets, it still performs in a closed system with little to no external disturbance. Replicating that on the street with numerous chances of anything unexpected is the real problem that the massive influx of capital and human resources is unable to solve.  

While investments in driverless cars haven’t produced the expected results, they haven’t been entirely wasted either. Today, the automotive industry is using technological advancements in the field to produce better, safer, and more reliable cars.  

The technology has sophisticated so much that we are very close to eliminating the human error factor — which is the major selling point of driverless vehicles — from the equation.

To understand it better, take a look at the mandatory inclusion of automatic emergency braking in modern cars. It is said to reduce crash injuries by 56% and have a similar effect on rear-end crashes. Almost every manufacturer in the developed world is including this feature in their cars now.  

Similarly, there are multiple features that not only make driving easier but also decrease the likelihood of accidents by a significant factor. Psychologically, people like to maintain a semblance of control. They might just prefer level 2 or level 3 driving automation instead of level 5 if both of them provide similar safety features.

This shift in priorities is reflected in investors’ behaviour as well. People are now asking questions about the necessity of driverless cars, the legal ambiguities, economic conditions post-COVID-19, and the humongous capital still required for driverless cars. All of these factors are negatively affecting key investors and shifting their focus towards other technologies.  

Another major concern regarding driverless cars is security. Just like everything connected to the internet, driverless cars can be remotely accessed or hacked.

Even if the hackers did it for kicks and giggles, you still won’t appreciate your car getting accessed and tampered with. Automobiles with partial automation or conditional automation will still be controllable.

Contrarily, in a fully automated car, the only thing you’ll be able to do is to hang on and pray for your life.  

There are two extremes when it comes to people’s expectations of driverless cars. Some people assume that they are right around the corner while others think that it will be ages before these cars become normalized. Both of these approaches are incorrect.

Driverless cars are expected to be of roadworthy condition by 2030. Even then, there will still be some time before driverless cars become the norm in everyday lives for most people.

GlobalData predicts that level 5 driverless cars will have a market penetration of 1.9% by 2035. This is not a significant number when you compare the resources that driverless cars still need in order to become a reality.

For someone in San Francesco or California, driverless cars may seem to be right around the corner because of the overwhelming number of prototypes you see on the street. But the technology is still in the experimental stage and it has a long road ahead before a full-scale adoption.    

Tim Hill

As an experienced startup leader hailing from sunny Queensland, Tim is a natural problem solver and innovative thinker — yet simultaneously everyone's best mate. As the Founder and CEO of Fleetyr, Tim is on a mission to bring affordable, simplified, and integrated mobility analytics to the entire industry worldwide. Connect with Tim.