For most, the thought of riding in a driverless car is hard to imagine. Although five years ago it may have seemed improbable to press a button on your smartphone to instantly summon a private car driven by a stranger – and actually trusting that driver to get you to your destination safely. But today over 19 million people use Uber, Lyft, Via and other rideshare services as trusted transportation. And now, auto and tech giants are again banking on the fact that convenience and experience will outweigh trepidation and the public will embrace vehicles equipped with automated driving systems (ADS) as their new taxis. In fact, most of those companies believe mobile users will be hailing taxis with some level of automated driving within the next five years.
It’s no secret that the race is on to disrupt the industry with the first autonomous vehicle. From established powerhouses like Mercedes-Benz, Volvo, and Ford to Silicon Valley’s Google and Tesla—we all have one thing in common. We are developing ADS technology faster than originally expected. Why? Because according to the Federal Highway Administration, Americans drive some three trillion miles per year, offering companies the opportunity to target mobility and grow their business by selling mobility as a service in addition to, or instead of, personal vehicles. But the ultimate goal for automakers isn’t about who can get their automated vehicles on public roads the fastest – it’s about creating a safe product and service that has real value for today’s consumers.
The joint effort between ride-hailing companies and automakers has industry fingers crossed that investments in ADS technology can yield nimble pilot programs, releasing convoys of vehicles into the market more quickly. Mercedes-Benz Research & Development recently announced a partnership with Udacity, the online advanced degree startup founded by Sebastian Thrun, offering nanodegrees in “Self-Driving Car Engineering.” Parent company Daimler AG has acquired European ride-hailing company mytaxi and invested in the chauffeur startup Blacklane. Rideshare company Uber has made no secret of its plans to eventually swap human drivers for automated vehicles. GM plans to test automated Chevrolet Bolt Taxis on roads following a $500 million investment with Lyft.
In fact, the auto industry has been talking about autonomous cars for years; engineers in Germany have been developing and testing automated systems since the 1980s. In 2012, Sergey Brin, Co-founder and Director of Special Projects at Google, predicted self-driving cars would be available to everyone in five years. And although we’re not there yet, we’re getting closer to a time when passengers – and pedestrians! – will put their trust in autonomous cars on public roads. Public support will play a major role in the commercialization of on-demand automated vehicle programs. Prospective riders still need to understand that the technology is efficient and see successful pilot programs before disrupting their relationship with their current vehicles and taxi services.
Pilot programs can’t be done everywhere, so automakers are thoughtfully initiating advanced testing in key areas, including in closed campus scenarios. By taking advantage of closed campuses we can test scenarios that drivers would encounter on daily commutes. This testing will be valuable over the next several years; honing the systems and giving future riders faith that automakers are only releasing automated vehicles that are as safe or safer than those with human drivers. Liabilities that govern the use of ADS have already been a roadblock for companies wishing to launch automated taxi services. In the near term companies are testing such on-demand ride services in urban settings with a fallback human driver, though eventually customers will need to see a privacy and cost benefit in order to embrace such a model.
The auto and tech industries, as well as safety advocates, claim that automated vehicles can be safer than humans, an assertion that has recently spurred the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to recognize the importance and potential positive societal impact of such technology. At the end of September, NHTSA unveiled a guidance document outlining a 15-point safety assessment for automakers, tech companies, and aftermarket suppliers to complete before bringing an ADS-equipped vehicle to market. The guidance also provides model legislation for states wishing to regulate this area. NHTSA’s issuance of the Federal Automated Vehicles Policy (FAVP) is a recognition of the potential benefits of ADS vehicles; in fact, NHTSA calls automated vehicles “the next revolution in roadway safety.” It will be crucial in the coming months and years to ensure nimble certification that allows swift and safe market introduction and competition without overly-burdensome regulations.
With the support of government at both the national and state levels, the technical development of more advanced automated systems, and increased consumer acceptance, the idea of summoning an automated on-demand ride seems a little less far-fetched. In the coming years, people could have a more convenient mode of transportation with a state-of-the-art experience that most us would not have fathomed in the not-so-distant past.
Please note that this article expresses the opinions of the author and does not reflect the views of Move Forward.