The road to autonomous driving. By Bryce Johnstone

Autonomous vehicles will transform our driving habits, the transportation industry and wider society as a whole. Not only will the ability to hail a car to your doorstep be a reality, it will turn the concept of car ownership on its head as well as have a positive impact on the environment. It is expected that by 2030, one in four cars on the road will be self-driving. But which companies are leading the race to delivering the first autonomous car on public roads?

Do we really need autonomous vehicles?
The reality is, we don’t actually need autonomous cars – driving isn’t that complex. However, when it goes wrong, the repercussions can be life altering and therefore, safety and reducing the number of road death and associated costs is a major reason to progress autonomous cars. There are also wider benefits that make autonomous cars a requirement, such as reduced congestion and pollution, as well as economic benefits such as increased mobility for the elderly, disabled and blind, and a decrease in fuel usage.

Even though cars today are safer than ever before, too many people lose their lives as a result of car accidents – 94 per cent of all accidents have an element of human error. In the UK, over 27,000 people were killed or seriously injured in car accidents in 2017, while 176,500 people were injured according to data from the Department for Transport. It’s important to remember that the UK has the fourth safest roads in Europe, so for countries that aren’t as focused on safety these numbers, will be higher.

Any reduction in these numbers is seen as a positive thing by governments and wider society. Functions such as automatic emergency braking, lane departure warning and pedestrian detection will reduce the dependence on the weak link in the chain – the driver – and have a positive impact in reducing accidents and ultimately, fatalities.

Where do we currently stand?
Autonomous driving is possibly one of the most exciting things to ever happen in the car industry but it is also one of the most overhyped. The excitement started in 2010 when Google introduced its self-driving car and it’s never really gone away. The key take-away is, autonomous cars are coming, just not as fast as some have predicted in the past.

Industry experts have defined five levels in the progression of autonomous driving. Each level describes the extent to which a car takes over the task and responsibility from the driver, and how the car and driver interact.

Level 1: Driver assistance. Driver assistance systems support the driver, such as automatic cruise control and automatic emergency braking, but do not take control.
Level 2: Partly automated driving. Driver assistance functions, can take control but the driver continues to operate the vehicle.
Level 3: Highly automated driving. In certain situations, the driver can disengage from driving for extended periods of time – some refer to this as ‘eyes off road’. The latest Audi A8 supports Level 3, for example.
Level 4: Fully automated driving. The car drives itself the most of the time within specific areas such as cities or motorway. The driver must remain present and able to drive, but can, for example, read a magazine.
Level 5: Fully automated. The driver can have ‘hands off, eyes off, brain off’. This means that there is no driver and people in the car are all passengers. There is also no need for a steering wheel.

Many new car models are coming out with Level 2 functionality down to mid-range family cars however, as an industry; we have barely scratched the surface of Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) functionality far less full autonomy. However, newspaper headlines are screaming that fully autonomous driving is ‘just around the corner’.

The first fully automated vehicle that you will see on the road will be robo-taxis in around three years. A robo-taxi, or robo-cab as some say, is a self-driving taxi with Level 4 or Level 5 autonomy.

The majority of these vehicles will be owned and operated by taxi service operators, ride-sharing services, new entrants from the tech sector and OEMs, and will be rented to the consumers, either by the minute or mile. Robo-taxis will offer the user a door-to-door service, enabling them to work, rest or be entertained during the journal, whilst also allowing them to share the ride and cost with other commuters.

Who is doing what?
There is feverish investment and collaboration activity in the automotive community. Volvo (Geely) and Uber have a $300m deal to deliver driverless cabs, whilst General Motors (GM) has taken a $500m stake in Lyft but is also covering its bases by working with Uber too. In addition, the likes of Uber, Lyft and others are spending vast amounts on R&D making sure that they are early in the game.

We are also seeing a range of autonomous driving platforms, many of which are from China, such as Baidu Apollo, Tencent and Alibaba gaining momentum. In addition, Chinese internet companies are building large software partnerships in order to be the preferred partner for those deploying autonomous vehicles.

Waymo (Google) and Ford are looking to deploy an autonomous taxi service this year. Car manufacturers themselves are taking a position in ride share companies, as well as looking to have self-owned car fleets for the Car as a Service (CaaS) opportunity. For example, Ford and GM have spun off their own independent carpooling companies to potentially take on the likes of DiDi and Uber.

In China, Baidu is testing autonomous vehicles in several cities and at least five Chinese car companies have licenses to test in the US. BMW and Toyota are both working with Chinese companies on early autonomous vehicles activity, while the Renault, Nissan and Mitsubishi alliance is working with DiDi on carpooling services.

Waymo is being very aggressive in its launch timescales of its robo-taxi and has received the right to run such a service in Arizona, USA, starting as early as later in 2018. Multiple trials are currently underway and will help shape not only the response of the technology to highly complex urban conditions, but also what infrastructure is needed to support a further rollout, and what is required in terms of government regulation and laws to ensure that the autonomous car has a smooth transition.

Consumer needs and wants
Part of the move to the robo-taxi, and eventually to fully automated vehicles, is to drive the cost per mile down to a point that it makes you question whether it is worth owning a car.

Given millennials see car ownership as less of a status symbol and not a necessity, there will be big changes in the car ownership landscape. Ultimately the winners will be the customers of such services, with the likes of Lyft, Uber, BlaBla, DiDi and many others offering taxi services at such a low-price point that paying for a car to sit on the drive or in the company car park for the majority of the day is no longer a sensible option.

Paying for Car as a Service (CaaS) rather than owning, means that things like insurance, annual testing and car tax, will no longer be the responsibility of the driver, but whoever owns the deployed vehicle.

The key attraction of CaaS is the removal of the cost to the driver. This can be up to 70 per cent of the total cost of delivering the service. Remove that (and the inconsistent driving styles and abilities) and cost reduces massively, making the service highly attractive with costs slashed to less that $1-per-mile, giving you a transport that is cheaper than personal ownership.

A future scenario for autonomous driving is one would call up a robo-taxi to your home. Once you got to work, the car OEM owned or rideshare owned car would be sent off on other journeys with other people travelling at different times during the day hence the utilisation rate of the car goes up dramatically. Once work is over the passenger calls up a similar car and gets taken home or on errands. Similarly, rather than go on a school run you can pack the kids off into a secure robo-taxi who will inform you of the safe arrival at school of the group.

The future
The autonomous car is a multi-trillion dollar hardware, software and services market. There are major obstacles on the way to a fully autonomous future including legislation and liability; however, its ability to address fundamental problems that exist, such as pollution, congestion, urban parking, and accident rates will mean that it will become the norm.

From a customer perspective, autonomous vehicles will bring obvious benefits in that the cost of ownership of cars or using cars will dramatically drop. In fact, given some of the numbers suggested by the likes of Lyft and Uber there is a question mark over whether there is any point in owning a car, given that it sits unused for potentially up to 95 per cent of its life.

Whilst it’s too early to say who is winning the race to deliver the first autonomous vehicle, it is fair to say that all major car manufacturers and new entrants are investing heavily and making a play for first place. All in all, we are in for a very interesting decade as we race headlong into what will ultimately be an autonomous driving world and the benefits that can bring.

Bryce Johnstone is Automotive Segment Director at Imagination Technologies, a global technology leader whose products touch the lives of billions of people across the globe. The company’s range of silicon IP (intellectual property) includes key processing blocks needed to create the SoCs (Systems on Chips) that power all automotive, consumer, embedded electronics, and mobile. Its unique multimedia, vision & AI, and connectivity technologies enable its customers to get to market quickly with complete and differentiated SoC platforms.
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