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Elon Musk made headlines in July when he promised Tesla would make its vehicles fully autonomous by the end of this year.
But while that statement got everyone talking, the reality for most drivers may turn out to be a little different. Firstly, there will be regulatory hurdles to jump over even if the technical capabilities exist. Secondly, it could be a long time before affordable versions of a fully brain-off, autonomous car hit the mass market and get accepted by consumers.
“We are going through a typical hype curve when it comes to autonomous vehicles,” said Carsten Hurasky, HERE Technologies’ Head of Industries Solutions. Expectations that roads would be teeming with driverless cars by 2020 have not worked out so far. Carsten said this is because the factors necessary for this to happen have not yet aligned. Apart from regulation, these include overcoming the technical challenges, achieving consumer acceptance and the need to find a workable business model.
And there are several phases we will have to go through first. In the world of autonomous cars, there are five levels of automation. Level one is used to describe cars with some kind of driver support, such as parking assistance. This ranges up to level five, which is a fully autonomous vehicle, and the kind of car Elon Musk was talking about.
“There is a critical red line which distinguishes between level two and level three,” Carsten explained. With level three, the driver is allowed to give control over to the car, either for a certain duration or for a certain stretch of road. The developments we have had so far are mostly in the range of one to two.” One of the reasons for such a big distinction is that level three car manufacturers, rather than the driver, are liable if something goes wrong.
The race towards a fully autonomous car has slowed as expectations catch up with reality. Meanwhile, Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) are growing. A PwC report estimates that this market will be worth $270 billion by 2030. And Carsten thinks that it is ADAS which will ultimately pave the way for greater automation in the future.
ADAS technology is increasingly found in mass-market cars.
Functionalities such as cruise control, lane-keeping support and parking assist are not a new trend in the luxury car market. “Premium OEMs have introduced multiple ADAS systems for a long time now,” Carsten said.
“But I think what’s interesting is how it is now proliferating down to smaller car segments – so it’s now also in the compact car, even small-sized cars.” Carsten cites the example of Ford who now have a vehicle that uses some ADAS features, even when customers do not have a built-in navigation system.
Cars from all segments of the industry now enjoy ADAS services.
“If you want to have highly automated cars on the roads, it’s not just about solving the technical issues and the regulatory issues, but also you need to have consumer acceptance. Consumer acceptance is something you generate by experiencing the technology. It is debatable whether a consumer would sit in a highly-automated car without having experienced what technology can do in an ADAS context. I would say ADAS is the road to automation,” he said.
Lawmakers have also given a boost to ADAS in many territories. For example, the European Commission now requires intelligent speed assist in new vehicles, as a move to prevent drivers from speeding. Last year, EU members gave the green light to new vehicle safety standards. That will see features such as automatic electronic braking and lane-keeping assistance become mandatory in new cars from 2022. Location information is increasingly important in helping the driver reduce emissions and be more fuel-efficient, something which legislation is increasingly targeting.
Another critical factor is adapting the business model so that consumers have a chance to try out ADAS before making a big financial commitment. This is especially important for more affordable segments.
“Getting this expensive technology to proliferate into the market is obviously one of the challenges,” Carsten said. “That’s why it’s also important to give carmakers the opportunity to try out these services in combination with new business models around subscription, activation, re-activation or trial periods for some functionalities which you might not have as part of the initial set-up of the car.”
Consumers might be willing to test out ADAS functionalities on a pay-per-trip basis, for instance, rather than adding 10,000 euros to the cost of a new vehicle before understanding the benefits. In turn, innovative business models will allow car manufacturers to recuperate their investment.
Along with its map products, HERE already offers support to the driver when it comes to hazard warnings, speed limits, lane-keeping, and other key ADAS offerings. Then there is the HD Live Map, which provides high definition map attributes for level 2+ and beyond offerings.
“We will see that sensors will get more sophisticated and can do even more, but we will also recognize that a sensor, regardless of how good it is, cannot look around the corner.” - Carsten Hurasky, Head of Industry Solutions
One of the challenges for connected cars right now is the testing environment. But Carsten can foresee a time in the near future where a lot of safety tests can be performed in simulations, making them faster and cheaper to do.
Tests could soon be performed in crash simulations
He also predicts that we will see many more ADAS applications coming to the market over the next one to three years. Sometimes this will be driven by regulatory demand, sometimes it will be driven by innovation and consumer experience optimization. “We will see that sensors will get more sophisticated and can do even more, but we will also recognize that a sensor, regardless of how good it is, cannot look around the corner. That’s where the location dimension of a map will provide additional insights and can enhance nearly every ADAS function by giving location context,” he said. Increased consumer acceptance and demand will eventually lead to the introduction of highly automated systems.
But anyone expecting to see a proliferation of level three cars on our roads by the end of 2020 may have to be patient. “Even though we believe that level three cars will be coming to the market in the not-too-distant future, it will probably take another three-five years for them to hit the mass market,” he said.