The autonomous car: a dream, mirage or reality?

The great global gathering of new technologies, the 50th edition of the CES (Consumer Electronic Show) has just closed its doors in Las Vegas. This year was marked by the overwhelming presence of motor manufacturers who had come to present their version of the car of tomorrow: Concept-I, Portal, FF91 or NeuV. They are all promising a genuine autonomous vehicle.

With one billion already in circulation around the world, there is passionate interest in any developments in the concept of the autonomous vehicle. It is heralded as the revolution of the motor industry, capable of redistributing the pieces around the chessboard between traditional industries going through a state of flux and new technology companies with undreamed-of resources.


Is the hyper-connected car, capable of transporting us anywhere at any time and without human involvement and no CO2 emissions, a reality? Will it soon be a reality? What about the technology? What will be the economic impact and any knock-on effects?


What is the autonomous car?

There are several technical levels of autonomous vehicle, from the car equipped with driving aids like parking or speed control to the completely autonomous vehicle which has no human component. The International Organisation of Vehicle Manufacturers defines them as follows:

Only level 2 is authorised in most states. Agreements exist allowing more specific testing. In February, Germany and France launched a cross-border test site for autonomous vehicles.


A far-from reliable technology

11 companies in California have obtained permits from the Department of Motor Vehicles to test driverless cars. The public organisation published its 2016 report at the beginning of February. There are eight motor manufacturers (BMW, GM Cruise, Ford, Honda, Nissan, Mercedes, Volkswagen and Tesla), two suppliers (Bosch and Delphi Automotive) and a single technology firm: Google since 2009. The verdict was unanimous: even if the number of kilometres driven is increasing year-on-year, human intervention remains necessary in many situations.

Difficulties generally arise when changing direction or when responding to unanticipated behaviour. This could come from the environment (a poor road surface) or interaction with other vehicles, for example when being overtaken at speed. There is also the risk of collision with an obstacle or an attempt to correct an unanticipated manoeuvre by the vehicle.

These are what are termed “native” autonomous vehicles. At the end of February, an American student managed to modify his 2016 Honda Civic by installing a 600 dollar “autonomy kit”. Plans for the kit had been put on line by a start up in a bid to develop the research. The technology is not there yet but progress is rapid and developing.


An autonomous car before 2030?

As well as the multitude of tests, a battle is also emerging for the industries involved both on the ground as well as in terms of communication. Car makers are offering us “dates” which are as much about keeping the market on tenterhooks as they are about proving they are still major players in the sector. PSA and Mercedes had announced plans for an autonomous vehicle in 2018, Renault in 2020, Ford and Volvo in 2021. At the end of January the creator of Tesla, Elon Musk, announced that his future car fleet had been designed with a built-in autonomous drive interface. This could mean that his fleet will potentially be totally autonomous within 3 to 6 months. Is this just PR?


The challenges: technology, legislation and usage

Why is there so much fuss about technology which has yet to become a daily reality and for which the legislative context has yet to be defined? This is a double challenge for manufacturers: managing the transition from “car maker” to “service provider”. The car industry will be based on savings in mobility. The challenge will be to manage vehicle software and not be overtaken by new technology companies like Google, Uber, Microsoft or Nvidia.

A vehicle’s value currently rests on its make (reliability, comfort and safety). With the growth in importance of connectivity, artificial intelligence and the demands of the environment, the software component (which is only 10% of the vehicle’s global value at the moment) will increase significantly to more than 30%. All players in the sector understand that the challenge is to master the software component. For car-makers, the risk is they will be on the wrong side of history and the new players in the mobility sector.


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