IT’S CARMAKERS V TECH COMPANIES IN THE TRANSPORT REVOLUTION
Two competing visions could determine how you first experience a driverless car.
Manufacturers Mercedes and Toyota already make vehicles equipped with systems that keep cars within their lanes, apply the brakes, or park by themselves. They plan to gradually automate more functions until, perhaps by 2025, some cars will be fully capable of driving themselves.
But Google, Alibaba, Baidu and other tech companies are aggressively working on their own self-driving vehicles and could leapfrog the car industry in bringing them to market. Google, for instance, promises to deliver a self-driving car in five years.
Some experts predict that car companies will continue to make the cars consumers buy and park in their driveway, and eventually some will be driverless. When the tech companies roll out driverless cars they are likely to be self-driving taxis for urban areas.
But the outcome is far from certain. Tech companies could go into the business of making cars for consumers, or carmakers could choose to develop and operate their own fleets of self-driving taxis.
“One thing is clear,’’ says Karl Brauer, a senior market analyst at Kelley Blue Book, ‘‘the next five to 10 years are going to be the most disruptive we’ve ever seen in the history of personal transport.”
A screen shows what the Google self-driving prototype ‘‘sees’’ through the window. Pictures / AP
Right now, carmakers have several advantages. They have a decades-long history of research and development and a deep understanding of drivers’ needs and habits. They’re also not new to semi-autonomous driving: Mercedes-Benz pioneered adaptive cruise control in 1999; Nissan introduced lane-keeping in 2001. They also have the manufacturing capacity to make the vehicles and the dealerships to sell them. Those are cash-intensive parts of the business that tech companies won’t be wanting.
Advances are coming at a furious pace. Mercedes and Infiniti, Nissan’s luxury division, offer cars that steer themselves and stay within their lanes at highway speeds. Tesla is expected to offer hands-free driving on the highway within months; Cadillac will offer it next year. In 2017, Audi will offer low-speed, hands-free driving that works during traffic jams.
But Google says a gradual approach to going driverless is wrong — and even dangerous. “The prevailing philosophy is that we’re going to take the driver assistance systems that are in the vehicle today and we’re going to incrementally make those better and better, and eventually we’ll get to this point where we have self-driving cars,” says Chris Urmson, director of the company’s self-driving car programme.
“We believe that’s like saying, ‘If I work really hard at jumping one day I’ll just be able to fly’.”
Urmson worries that drivers might wrongly assume cars have autonomous features, or they might get overconfident and forget to take back the wheel in an emergency.
Case in point: Last month, a driver testing a Volvo XC60 in the Dominican Republic ploughed into some bystanders. The driver thought the car had a system that would stop automatically if it detected pedestrians. But Volvo says the car wasn’t equipped with that optional system.
Google is testing a small fleet of self-driving cars with no steering wheel. It plans to drive the cars thousands of kilometres on California highways and back streets, teaching them all the tricks of driving.
Such an approach has its benefits. Unlike car companies, which have to constantly update models, tech companies can take the time to dream big and perfect their self-driving systems.
Customers would be likely to trust a self-driving system backed by Apple or Google. And tech companies have plenty of money: Google ended the first quarter with $96.25 billion in cash and marketable securities; General Motors had $31 billion.
But many experts find Google’s five-year timeframe overly ambitious. There are legal and ethical issues to work through before driverless cars go mainstream. Google’s cars also require extremely detailed mapping, which has been done only in limited areas.
Mercedes-Benz already offers cars that steer themselves and stay within their lanes. Picture / AP
David Zuby, a vice-president at US Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, says the vehicle industry is cautious for a reason. “If someone sets the technology too far ahead and it fails, that could set things back more than if you would let it evolve more naturally,” he said.
Egil Juliussen, a technology expert at the consulting firm IHS Automotive, says both approaches can work.
He says the carmakers’ gradual approach will cut down on accidents. In the meantime, Google, Uber and others will perfect their technology by focusing on low-speed, self-driving pods for urban areas.
But at some point, Juliussen says, car companies will switch from semi-autonomous to fully autonomous driving. Manufacturers might ditch their own systems in favour of software from a tech company. Or they might try to fight off tech companies and keep all the profits. The demand for autonomous capability is there: a Boston Consulting Group (BCG) survey shows that 44 per cent of US car buyers would consider buying a self-driving car in the next decade, the motivation being lower insurance premiums and increased safety.
For now, the most advanced systems are expensive and found on luxury brands.
US buyers of the new Volvo XC90 SUV must pay the equivalent of US$4225 extra for lane-keeping, adaptive cruise control and blind-spot detection.
But mainstream brands aren’t far behind. More autonomous technology will reach the market as cameras and sensors get cheaper and consumers demand more safety features. Toyota promises automatic braking, pedestrian detection and lane departure warning — for just a few hundred dollars — on all of its vehicles by 2017.
BCG expects fully autonomous cars that drive on highways and in cities by 2025. By 2035 the company predicts that 10 per cent of vehicles will be fully autonomous and 15 per cent will be semi-autonomous.
Xavier Mosquet, who heads BCG’s automotive practice, foresees a day when buyers will sacrifice engine power or a premium interior in favour of more autonomous technology.
“They will say, ‘What the car does for me is as important as other features in the car’,” he says.
Then the question becomes whether they opt for a car with a Mercedes logo or a Google one.