Autonomous cars

The first fully autonomous (level 5) cars are expected to be on the market within just years, and to have a dramatic impact on mobility and multimodal transport.

Generally speaking, the autonomous car is defined as being any car capable of satisfying its operational functions of a traditional car but with limited, or no human intervention. Several obstacles and enablers to having these vehicles on the road have already been identified.

Comfort and safety above all

Proponents of the autonomous car say that these vehicles will have a positive impact on safety, as virtually every traffic accident today is due to human error (94%). Another selling point is comfort, with the level of concentration required to drive considerably reduced, and so creating an opportunity to spend the time doing something else. Moreover, functions such as platooning will make for more fluid traffic in the city (hence more efficient driving), which is a major challenge faced today by all the world’s major metropolises. Lastly, autonomous cars will pave the way for the development of mobility services for the various players along the automotive value chain, as part of their overall servicisation strategy.

Questions over business models and risk management

Business models are one of the main obstacles to the introduction of the autonomous car. If the different sensors are vital to autonomous driving, so too connectivity and communication technologies are important. They will enable cars to communicate with the outside world and vice versa, which will improve driving and safety, among other things, but also generate additional costs, both for cars and road infrastructure. Cultural aspects will also affect adoption. If the fear that these new solutions designed to improve road safety will cause even more accidents might seem paradoxical, the risks in terms of cybersecurity – the danger that someone will hack into a connected car and take control of it for malicious purposes – are very real. Lastly, beyond the technical and financial considerations at play, the legal framework will also need to change, notably with respect to liability when accidents do occur.

Will the Internet giants be the industry’s new entrants?

Among traditional car manufacturers, it is the manufacturers of high-end vehicles that currently dominate the autonomous car sector, as safety and driving comfort have always been among their major selling points. Moreover, as there are as yet no economies of scale to be had, these technologies are very costly. The strategy of some car manufacturers appears to be to begin by making autonomous cars part of ride-sharing fleets, such as Volvo is doing with Uber, before trying to sell them to consumers. Internet companies are already taking a keen interest in autonomous vehicles, including Google which has key partnerships with Fiat-Chrysler and Lyft, and Baidu in China.

IDATE DigiWorld forecasts that the first level-5 cars will be available by 2021, but will be more expensive than their non-autonomous counterparts, and represent around 2% of car sales in developed countries that year.

Five stages before full autonomy
Levels of driving autonomy
Level Description Example of automated features
Level 0 Drivers continuously perform all dynamic driving tasks ---
Level 1: Driving assistance Drivers monitor and intervene in all driving tasks; an individual task is automated by an assistance system Automatic braking, adaptive cruise control
Level 2: Partial automation Drivers intervene in all driving tasks; multiple driving tasks are automated Traffic jam assist, adaptive cruise control and lane monitoring for the control of steering and speed
Level 3: Conditional automation Drivers can hand over situation-monitoring and dynamic driving tasks to an automated system, but are expected to retake control in some situations when prompted by the car All driving tasks, but with caveats
Level 4: High automation Drivers can fully hand over situation-monitoring and dynamic driving tasks to an automated system in almost all driving cases. In very complex situations, the system may safely hand over the driving to the driver, or safely park itself All driving tasks
Level 5: Full automation Cars perform all dynamic driving tasks in all driving cases as if human All driving tasks
Source: IDATE DigiWorld in ''Autonomous cars''
On the market by 2021