After the initial euphoric predictions of mass adoption of self-driving cars by 2025, the industry, regulators and consumers are taking a step back as the enormity of the challenges comes to the fore.
As far back as 2018, the Gartner Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies placed Level 4 self-driving car technology – as defined by SAE J3016 – firmly on course to the “trough of disillusionment.”
Level 5 meanwhile was still making its way to the “peak of inflated expectations” – placing both a good ten years away from the “plateau of productivity” where revenue is generated and the technology gains acceptance.
By 2019 the needle hadn’t moved much. With Level 5 autonomous vehicles now at the peak and Level 4 still on the slope of disillusionment.
While the technology is maturing rapidly, there have nevertheless been several incidents in recent months that highlight the AV’s challenges in moving up the curve and becoming a widely accepted form of transport.
Recent events expose the challenges self-driving tech must overcome
For AVs to gain acceptance in the marketplace, the technology needs to be seen as safe and reliable – having been developed, tested, verified and validated in a rigorous manner with transparent processes that have a sound, logical basis.
Several real-world glitches, during testing and even daily driving, have highlighted some of the traffic conditions AVs are not particularly good at:
- After an autonomous Ford Focus stalled and blocked the traffic during a December 2019 Winter City AV competition in Moscow, several following self-driving vehicles were unable to work their way around the stoppage. Unlike humans, these cars were unable to ignore physical road markings because they were not trained to do so
- Although strictly speaking Tesla’s Autopilot is classified as a Level 2 system there have been several highly publicized incidents involving vehicles in self-driving mode – none of them proven to be system malfunctions, but rather due to the difficult identification of edge-cases
- While the results of the NTSB’s investigation into the Uber self-driving car that crashed into Elaine Herzberg on March 18, 2018, in Tempe, Arizona, laid no blame at the door of the AV technology itself, it did highlight the importance of driver engagement – particularly when carrying out tests on public roads
Against the backdrop of the potential benefits that self-driving cars hold for societies, regulators and the extended industry are coordinating and stepping up their efforts to ensure the safe but accelerated rollout of AVs.
What are the challenges facing self-driving car manufacturers and regulators as AVs take to the roads?
The global driverless car market is projected to grow from $54.23bn in 2019, to $556.67b by 2026, at a CAGR of 39.47 percent, according to Allied Market Research.
What is more the UN believes that self-driving vehicles could reduce the 1.3 million global road fatalities by up to 94 percent.
However, in achieving this, the industry faces several challenges:
- Standards and regulatory frameworks across the globe are fragmented and largely undefined
- User confidence is low
- The technologies are mostly unproven in real-world testing
- Getting the first self-driving vehicles without traditional safety equipment like a steering wheel or pedal box on the road remains some time away
Of these, possibly the most pressing challenge is to formulate standards and regulations that govern not only the technology, but also how autonomous vehicles are tested and operated on public roads.
Without government permits, testing self-driving cars on public roads is almost universally illegal. The Vienna Convention on Road Traffic, an international treaty that has regulated international road traffic since 1968, stipulates that a human driver must always remain fully in control of and responsible for the behavior of their vehicle in traffic.
What standards, rules and laws are being considered to regulate autonomous vehicles?
European and North American countries including the US, Germany, UK, and Netherlands were pioneers of self-driving vehicle licensing, and have introduced regulations for self-driving cars on public roads and issued many autonomous testing permits.
Asian countries have caught up and have been enacting similar legislation over the last four years.
According to a study by AI Technology and Industry Review publicist, Synced, the global regulatory landscape looked like this in 2018:
In an attempt to ease the regulatory burden, in January 2020, the White House and the US Department of Transportation (USDOT) released a draft federal guideline on autonomous vehicles: ‘Ensuring American Leadership in Automated Vehicle Technologies: Automated Vehicles 4.0’ (AV 4.0).
AV 4.0 seeks to establish federal principles for the development and integration of automated vehicles, consisting of three core focus areas:
- Prioritize safety and security
- Promote innovation
- Ensure a consistent regulatory approach
It also outlines ongoing Administration efforts supporting AV technology growth and leadership, as well as opportunities for collaboration including federal investments in the AV sector and resources for innovators, researchers, and the public.
While a clear regulatory framework establishes a homogenous environment for the operation of AVs, companies developing autonomous technology are also moving to formulate industry standards to promote safety:
- In 2019, representatives from 11 companies including Aptiv, Audi, Baidu, BMW, Daimler, Infineon, Intel, and Volkswagen joined forces to write a wide-ranging whitepaper titled “Safety First for Automated Driving.” The group promotes the design of safety features into the automated driving function, while encouraging the validation and verification of the performance of robotic functions in a wide range of operating conditions.
- On 7 November 2019, the International Telecommunications Union announced the formation of a focus group called ‘AI for Autonomous and Assisted Driving’, to develop performance standards for AI systems that control self-driving cars.
According to Greg McGuire, associate director of the Mcity autonomous vehicle testing lab at the University of Michigan, safety regulations and standards for autonomous vehicles are absolutely critical for public acceptance of the new technology.
Hopefully the heightened efforts of regulators and actors within the industry will pay dividends, because at the moment consumer acceptance of AVs in most regions is waning.
Consumers around the world express mixed sentiments when it comes to self-driving cars
In a 2019 survey of 5,500 consumers and 280 executives from leading organizations, the Capgemini Research Institute sought to gauge users’ sentiment pertaining to driverless cars, with some interesting results.
Asked what emotion describes how they felt about self-driving cars, 59 percent said “anticipation” and 52 percent said “surprise” – but 48 percent sensing “fear” with 43 percent expressing feelings of “loss of control/helplessness.” Only 32 percent said “trust” with 28 percent replying “confidence.”
Markus Winkler, vice president, global head of automotive at Capgemini, said in an interview with Automotive News in May 2019: “The consumer is very influenced by what’s in the media. You have peaks of excitement when an announcement comes out at events like CES, but at the same time, accidents and other incidents also affect the consumer.”
According to a 2020 Deloitte Global Automotive Consumer Study, global perception regarding the safety of self-driving vehicles remains stalled since last year, with India and China actually reversing sentiment.
Additionally, more than half of consumers in India and the United States are concerned about the idea of autonomous vehicles being tested in areas where they live.
While consumers are, rightfully, concerned about the safety of real world road tests of self-driving cars, it remains the only way to develop and hone the technology en route to mass deployment.
The testing of autonomous vehicles has come a long way, but still driverless cars have many more miles to cover
An important milestone in autonomous self-driving history was set in February 2020 when a modified Nissan Leaf completed a 370km journey autonomously – the longest and most complex trip ever made by an autonomous vehicle in the UK.
Equipped with eight LiDAR sensors, seven cameras and a forward-facing radar, feeding information to six electronic control units, the autonomous EV made the journey from Cranfield in southern England to Nissan’s Sunderland factory in the northeast, alongside conventional motorists on country lanes and motorways.
However, although this journey was remarkable because of the fact that the vehicle was not geo-fenced, it only covered 230 miles. According to a 2016 Rand Corporation study, to demonstrate that fully autonomous vehicles have a fatality rate of 1.09 fatalities per 100 million miles with a 95 percent confidence level, the vehicles would have to be driven 275 million failure-free miles.
With a fleet of 100 autonomous vehicles being test-driven 24 hours a day, 365 days a year at an average speed of 25 miles per hour, this would take about 12.5 years.
Although nowhere near that mileage, by January 2020 Waymo’s fleet of autonomous cars had accumulated a total of 20 million miles on public roads in 25 cities – up from 10 million miles only a year ago. What is more, in training these vehicles, the company has driven tens of billions of miles through computer simulations.
Despite the importance of these tests in developing and validating self-driving technology these vehicles retained safety components that users are familiar with – the steering wheel and brake pedal. True Level 5 autonomous driving is expected to do away with these entirely.
The first driverless vehicles without a steering wheel are set to take to the roads
In a decision more than a year in the making, in January 2020 NHTSA granted a request by self-driving delivery company Nuro for an exemption from the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards that require steering wheels, brake pedals, windshields and mirrors to be fitted to all road-going vehicles.
The company will be permitted to produce and deploy as many as 5,000 of its R2 autonomous electric delivery vehicles for a period of two years.
In another development, GM and Honda-backed Cruise recently unveiled the Origin (above), a driverless vehicle that can accommodate up to six people.
According to Dan Ammann, CEO of Cruise Automation, the self-driving Origin could save the average urban resident up to $5,000 a year and operate continuously for up to a million miles.
“It’s our mission at Cruise to make autonomous car technology as safe as possible and get it deployed as rapidly as possible, so that we can have the impact of saving millions of lives that are lost on the road,” said Ammann, who estimates that the autonomous ride-sharing and delivery logistics markets are $5tn and $2tn opportunities, respectively.
So, notwithstanding the many challenges faced by manufacturers in rolling out self-driving vehicles in significant numbers, it is important that the technology reaches the market sooner rather than later.
Researchers from RAND Corporation claim that deploying cars that are just 10 percent safer than the average human driver will save more lives than waiting until they are 75 percent or 90 percent better.
It is therefore important that industry professionals keep abreast of the latest autonomous vehicle trends and technologies, thus Automotive IQ will be offering the following events specific to the self-driving car: