Could Autonomous Cars be a Generation Away?

Again this week, we have no special reports, but I was at CES Unveiled in Paris yesterday and am at the Paris Motor Show (Mondial de l’Auto) today (the events ran together, which was convenient), although I have been stuck in the press room all day, writing and editing! However, I plan to get on the show floor a bit more tomorrow. The press room does at least have incredibly fast internet and free food and drink (and being France that included something fizzy at lunch time!). We’ll have the report for you next week and will be publishing online as it gets done. Ken will also be reporting on the recent SID conference on automotive displays.

There was an interesting panel on mobility and transport yesterday in Paris.

One of the most interesting points and one that I have been thinking about is that the effect of autonomous cars and robotaxis (which will be arriving ‘in months’, Google said at the event) could be really positive or really negative depending on the policies adopted by governments and regulators. On the one hand, there is an idea that cars that are more heavily used than they are today (they are only used about 4% of their lifetimes at the moment) should mean that there are many fewer cars.

Several years ago, I spoke to a group from one of the Fraunhofer Institutes in Germany that was working on autonomous driving to deal with car parking. The idea was that if you were going to a destination, especially one in a city, you could take the car to the event, even in a city centre and then tell the car to go and park itself. The idea was that the further out of the city centre (and the longer notice that you could give when calling them back) that the car parked, the cheaper it would be. That would clear parked cars from city centres and make them much more pleasant. It’s some years since I realised after a lot of travelling around the world to different cities, that the attractiveness of a destination was, for me, more or less directly proportional to the ease with which it could be enjoyed on foot.

If robotaxis were well coordinated with public transport, that would also be much more attractive. Why not take a bus or train if at the end for ‘the last mile’ could be by a low cost robotaxi or on foot or a rented bike or scooter? Again, that would reduce traffic.

However, if authorities and national and city governments don’t think long and hard and get policies right, buses and trams might get replaced by many more robocars, making congestion and the impact of traffic even worse than it is now. This effect has already been seen in some cities where ‘Uberisation’ has gone a long way. A report this summer showed that in some places there had been an increase of 160% in driving on city streets. If mobility becomes more comfortable, convenient and, above all, more affordable, people become more mobile.

Like all technology, it seems, autonomous driving could make the world better, but it could also make it worse in some ways.

The second point that jumped out at me at the event was that the CEO of Faurecia, a major supplier to the automotive industry and a partner with many car companies, said that he expects it to take until 2040 to get widespread adoption of autonomous driving at Level 5 – that is to say at any time and anywhere. That really doesn’t sound like the sort of timeframe that the many technology companies diving into the market are used to working on, so it will be interesting to see how many can stay the course.