Business

04 February 2016

Out of the driver's seat 

Every so often, industries experience a seismic, once-in-a-generation change. As driverless cars are set to become reality, the auto industry is now on the cusp of just such a moment.

The momentum toward self-driving cars – capable of sensing the environment and navigating without any human input – has been building for some time. Google has been running trials of its driverless cars on public roads in the US for the past five years, while Apple is engaged in a secret project that is widely thought to encompass autonomous vehicle technology.

Washington is backing the innovators: President Obama has promised $3.9 billion in financial assistance, along with the introduction of standardized rules across the country.

The current leader is arguably Tesla Motors, the electric vehicle pioneer, which has installed software in its latest model permitting limited driverless functionality. The system still requires drivers to keep one hand on the wheel, but is already credited with having prevented a number of accidents.

Elon Musk, Tesla’s CEO, says that the company expects to produce its first truly driverless vehicles by 2018, then likely have to wait a year or more for regulatory approval before offering them in showrooms. Other manufacturers, including Toyota, have announced plans to introduce models capable of autonomous highway driving by 2020.

While luxury brands like BMW and Mercedes-Benz are also looking into driverless solutions, not all high-end manufacturers see this as the future. The CEO of Porsche, Oliver Blume, recently said that his company was sticking with tradition, insisting: “An iPhone belongs in your pocket, not on the road.”

Meanwhile, the industry is also changing in other ways. The advent of Uber, however controversial, is shaking up the taxi business in country after country, and may presage an era of readily available, cost-effective taxi hire (with or without a driver) and ride-sharing that enables many households to do without owning a car. Uber says that it expects its entire fleet to be self-driving by 2030.

Autonomous vehicle technology could also enable public transport to evolve in ways that are more responsive to society’s needs and less prone to buckle under the pressure of demand. A new and more efficient era could also dawn for road haulage, becoming less dependent on sleep-deprived, accident-prone, long-distance truck drivers.

All of this will inevitably lead to economic disruption and job losses, including in the insurance sector, government registration departments and, of course, driving schools. But benefits will include reduced energy consumption and lower levels of carbon emissions, as well as greater mobility for those who are unable to drive themselves.

Most importantly, the widespread adoption of self-driving cars should lead to an enormous decline in the accident rate.

Indeed, until now, despite the introduction of seat belts and air bags, no one has been able to address the greatest threat to passenger safety: the human being behind the wheel, who is the cause of the majority of all road accidents, which kill 1.2 million people every year.