With regard to reality imitating art, autonomous driving is a gleaming example. With film - 1990’s Total Recall, 2002’s Minority Report and 2004’s I, Robot are just a handful of the many cases predicting the driverless car. The technology is still in its infancy, and it will be some time before the roads are awash with self-driving taxi cabs, but recently the small steps in its development have given way to jumps.
The latest major manufacturer to join the race towards autonomous vehicles is General Motors. The Detroit giants bought Cruise Automation Inc. - an autonomous vehicle startup with some exciting visions for the future - this month, for a fee some believe to be as high as $1 billion. Cruise will work alongside another of GM’s acquisitions - Lyft - to develop driverless cars for the ride-hailing startup that looks to challenge Uber in the coming years. Incidentally Uber has, according to Fortune, placed a ‘large order’ for self-driving cars themselves. By cutting its largest cost, drivers, Uber could offer an even cheaper service and turn around its current losses with a fleet of autonomous cars.
According to Forbes, GM fear being left behind by the likes of Google, Apple and Tesla; a rational fear, perhaps, given the heavy investment from these competitors in what is expected to be the future of the road. Ford have also set up a subsidiary, Ford Smart Mobility, a branch dedicated to developing smart vehicles. Ford say the subsidiary is ‘designed to compete like a startup company’ and that the stated goal is to ‘develop commercially ready mobility services and invest in promising mobility-related ventures.’ Something of an arms race is brewing in the auto manufacturing industry, and as technological advancements accelerate, no company will want to be left behind wondering what they missed.
And it’s not just GM that are shoring up their future with developments in driverless vehicles. Earlier this month, 20 automakers - think of just about every major manufacturer and they’ll appear on this list - committed to making ‘automatic emergency breaking a standard feature on virtually all new cars by 2022’, according to Forbes. The move is years ahead of predictions, and will see safer technology boosted, whilst overcoming one of autonomous driving’s key safety concerns. According to a study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the technology could cut rear-end crashes by 40%, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimate that the technology will reduce insurance injury claims by 35%. Once the potential benefits of automation on the roads have been demonstrated, albeit incrementally, the road towards full automation will be far smoother.
Regarding driverless heavy goods vehicles, the United States military could be the key proponents. This summer, they will be testing a convoy of at least four vehicles on a stretch of Interstate 69 in Michigan. The supply vehicles have been tested in self-drive mode but this will be the first time they have been unleashed on public roads. The military applications are clear; driverless supply vehicles could free up soldiers for other duties and greatly reduce the number of casualties of military drivers. But the applications outside of the military could also be huge, with commercial trucking companies likely to pick up on the technology as soon as it becomes available publicly. If the US army are successful in their testing, regulators will be far quicker to accept commercial use. As in the military tests, the immediate future will not see a fully driverless system but a human driver leading an automated convoy.
Autonomous driving is the trend in which no major manufacturer wants to be left behind. The mind-blowing money being shovelled into an as-yet largely inactive industry may not see the significant return many expect it to. There are plenty of variables at play and either way, it will take time to see driverless cars implemented. Not every manufacturer is piling resources into the technology - FCA, for example, plan to catch up when the need is more pressing - but those that do will have a product that not only offers endless opportunities for commercialization, but one that captures the imagination.