Fri, Mar

Driven to distraction

Vehicles that drive themselves are no longer the preserve of science fiction, but how soon will they become part of our everyday lives - and part of your company transport fleet? Walter Hale investigates.

In a literal sense of the word, the first ‘automobile’ – i.e. a machine that moved automatically - was envisaged by Leonardo da Vinci. In a recently discovered drawing from 1478, he sketched a three-wheeled wooden cart that could be programmed with instructions. Although the modern automobile was developed by Henry Ford, there was nothing very automatic about the Model T. Ford. And, apart from automated gearboxes, the heirs of that pioneering vehicle have all required manual intervention.

Yet the possibility of driverless vehicles has been a recurring dream. In 1939, General Motors’ Futurama exhibit at the World’s Fair envisioned “abundant sunshine, fresh air [and] fine green parkways” on which cars would drive themselves. Serious attempts to realise such a vision were made in the 1950s by GM and RCA in the form of a scale model automated highway. In the intervening decades, the focus of development has changed: the technological innovation, especially digital technology, is in the car itself, which is now envisaged as the seeing, intelligent hub of a network that can drive vehicles without human intervention.

In 1995, roboticists from Carnegie Mellon University took a Pontiac, rechristened Nav Lab 5, across the US on a tour billed as “No hands across America.” Hands were sometimes used – even though the vehicle was kitted out with a portable computer, a windshield-mounted camera and a GPS receiver, it only drove itself 98.2% of the time. It sometimes needed a bit of help avoiding obstacles.

Even so, a point had been made and almost ever since, the advent of driverless transport, connected cars, autonomous cars, whatever you want to call it, has been regarded as imminent. Today, with Tesla and Google engaged in a kind of ‘space race’ to perfect this technology, traditional manufacturers like BMW, Ford, GM, Rolls Royce, Toyota and Volkswagen queuing up to say when they will have their own solutions for sale and pioneering vehicles being road tested in the UK, the driverless revolution seems just around the corner. Yet many analysts argue that a long and winding road lies ahead before this particular revolution reaches its destination.

In an insightful blog on SmartCitiesWorld, Jaroslaw Czaja, CEO of Polish software development outsourcer Future Processing, suggested why this might be so. The greatest obstacle he identified was the infrastructure – or, more accurately, the lack of it. “The connected car is one thing, but it will only derive its maximum benefit from being intrinsically linked to the city. This is fine in places like Barcelona, less so in the overpopulated and congested cities of Delhi and Sao Paolo where just driving from one end of the street to another is not without challenges.”

To change that, Czaja argues, requires investment – an awful lot of it. “By any standard, connecting every car to every city is an enormous task, pushing the limits of our technical boundaries. That means it will take years, generations even, and monumental amounts of investment which could be spent on housing or healthcare.”

The vehicles themselves are not quite ready. The publicity about the first fatality caused by a Google driverless car will not have reassured drivers leery about safety, but the bigger threat is cybersecurity. Experiments have already shown that hackers can break into the vehicles’ systems and make them brake, accelerate or steer in a different direction. A manual override will reduce the risk but, in many cases, that mechanism will be too slow to prevent accidents.

Then there is the small matter of the law. While Silicon Valley minds move at a Formula 1 pace, legislators are stuck in the slow lane. At a recent meeting of a famous California car club, members asked speakers whether they should delay buying a new car and wait for driverless vehicles. Linsey Wills, a spokesman for the state’s largest self-driving centre, told the audience: “We have to think about the fact that the laws are not going to move that quickly.” That’s true in the US but, given the dysfunctional state of British politics, probably applies to the UK as well.

To succeed, the driverless vehicle revolution requires companies from two radically different industries to seriously collaborate. We’re not talking lip service or announcements of alliances primarily designed to convince investors that this issue is being taken seriously. At issue here is how do these companies share knowledge, negotiate exclusivity and understand their contrasting cultures. As Czaja notes: “The difference in technological cycles of the phone and car are vastly different. Upgrades and new operating systems as integrated virtually real time for mobile handsets, while car manufacturers work on much longer cycles.” To give just one example, you can barely turn on a laptop without being invited to upgrade software. Most cars are only upgraded when their owner buys a new one.

And how do they share the revenue? As one industry insider told me: “The Fords and the GMs of this world are terrified that they will end up as the Foxconns of the automotive industry – glorified component suppliers to the Apples and Googles who get all the value from this revolution and drive product development. Their fear is that the driverless vehicle becomes an iPhone on wheels – and the tech companies get the lion’s share of the revenue.”

To be fair, automobile giants haven’t helped themselves. We live in an age when vehicles are recalled for very simple technological failures: air bags, door mats and ignition switches. And the evidence that Volkswagen – and probably other manufacturers – have regarded environmental regulations as something they can craftily circumvent has hardly bolstered consumer confidence.

So that’s the bad news. Yet the benefits could be immense. Despite the publicity about crashes, driverless vehicles will be much safer, which could slash a company’s insurance costs. Estimates vary but many studies have concluded that 90% of road accidents are caused by human error. KPMG has forecast an 80% fall in the accident rate by 2040 in the US. Over the same timeline, Deloitte’s predicts a 30% drop in insurance premiums. The new generation of cars will also flag up fires and low air pressure in tyres, enable garages to diagnose remotely, point out free parking spaces and recommend hotels and restaurants en route.

Driverless cars will also be much kinder to the environment. There are 900m cars on the world’s roads (by 2020, that figure will be up to 1.1bn) and, because most of them are powered by fossil fuels, they generate about 14% of the world’s exhaust fumes and emissions. Czaja writes: “If freight could be shipped using the best mode of transport for each case, and intelligently bundled and delivered, emissions could be brought down.” The same principle would apply to individuals who, knowing where people are wanting a ride, will not necessarily need to travel alone.

The caveat here is that driverless vehicles could prove too popular for the planet’s good. As Zia Wadud, an associate professor at the University of Leeds, has blogged, they could use less energy because they will platoon (drive closer together so they face less air resistance) and anticipate traffic flow. If they prove to be 90% safer than existing cars, some of the heavy safety features could be removed, reducing the carbon footprint from their manufacture and use.

But – and it is a big but – if driverless vehicles become so attractive they encourage people to use them rather than public transport, they could increase travel by 60% which, in turn, could mean a 2-10% increase in energy usage and emissions.

What about drones? Regulators are keener to encourage these, and they are already flying across the skies in many countries, yet how useful will they prove for wide-format print service providers? The outlook here is even fuzzier than with driverless vehicles. With current technology, a printer could deliver a box of business cards to a customer with a drone – but not a stack of signage. Yet the technology is in its infancy – and it would well develop into something profoundly useful.

The media excitement about the imminent arrival of driverless vehicles reflects a euphoric Silicon Valley view of the world. Yet we need to be careful to guard against our innate tendency to overestimate change in the short term – and underestimate it in the long term.