An international race is on to develop driverless cars that will free our cities from congestion, and there are trillions of dollars at stake.
With Google currently seen to be leading the race to develop driverless cars commercially, eight or more car manufacturers have made it clear that they are also in it to win it, or at least share in the enormous potential profits. These include Audi, Daimler, Delphi, Ford, General Motors, Nissan, BMW, Tesla, and Volvo.
A recent Forbes news report that names interested vehicle manufacturers also points out that “trillions are at stake.” With new vehicle sales in the US accounting for a mere 19 percent of global auto sales, the potential is astounding – especially since income relating to the annual US automotive industry tops more than $2.5 trillion. National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA) figures show that new vehicles accounted for $464.3 billion in 2014 alone.
The same report also claims that driverless taxis would disrupt the US car rental trade by some $26 billion. This could impact dramatically on public transportation as a whole, even as frontrunners developing driverless cars will be sure to make money, and lots of it.
At the same time, it will also depend whether “driverless” cars are completely unmanned or not. While Google is aiming for totally autonomous, driverless cars, Tesla, for example, has said it will focus on autopilot and release drivers from “tedious tasks” rather than get rid of the driver completely.
Another issue is safety.
Google announced this week that the self-driving cars it has been testing in California – on the open road, including highways – have been involved in a total of 11 accidents during the past six years. The company maintains that all accidents were “minor” and that the cars weren’t the cause of any of the accidents. The claim is that other drivers crashed into driverless cars (so not my fault).
According to Google’s director of the self-driving program, Chris Urmson, rear-end crashes account for the most accidents in the US, “and often there’s little the driver in front can do to avoid getting hit.”
This might sound minimal, but in real terms, these accidents involved four of the 48 self-driving cars on Californian roads (8.3 percent), and they all happened in the past eight months since it became mandatory to report all accidents being tested on public roads. One car belonged to Delphi (that supplies parts), and the others to Google.
Whatever the impact (physical or financial) companies that don’t want to get rid of drivers totally have some confidence that drivers can prevent accidents. This becomes a real issue when conditions aren’t perfect, says Pat Bassett, vice president of the North American research and engineering center for Denso. For this reason there are, he says “still some technical challenges and some legal issues that have to be resolved.”
After all, if nobody is driving, who will be held responsible?
Nevertheless when and if self-driving cars become a daily reality, there is no doubt that traffic patterns will change.
A new study by the International Transport Forum (ITF) indicates how driverless cars are likely to change traffic congestion in the world’s cities. “Impact on travel volume Shared and self-driving fleets hold much promise for reducing the number of cars in our cities…”
Ultimately, self-driving cars could remove nine out of ten cars from city streets and make them redundant. This scenario would free up vast amounts of public space that would not need to be used for parking. The question is probably not how many driverless cars will ultimately take to the streets of USA, but which companies will make money from them.
By Penny Swift