Self-driving cars: Coming sooner than you think?

Self-driving cars are nearer than previously thought because of the convergence of technologies, HOV lanes, market opportunities, and young consumers who prefer to text than drive. The big advantage of self-driving cars: more efficient transportation.

By , Guest blogger

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    This undated handout from the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles shows a screen capture of what a self-driving car sees. In May, the department issued Google the nation’s first license to test self-driving cars on public streets.
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Over the past decade, a number of high-tech tools have arrived to help make driving easier, simpler, and more automated. A new study suggests that the jump from those tools to fully autonomousvehicles could come sooner than we'd thought.

The study is called Self-Driving Cars: The Next Revolution, and it was put together by data powerhouse KPMG, in conjunction with the Center for Automotive Research, which tracks trends in the auto industry. Together, they interviewed over 25 leaders in the automotive field, including technology developers, regulators, academics, and others.

What they found was that the pace of change is picking up, and it may well lead to a real revolution in the way that we think about and use cars. Quoting from the introduction to their report:

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For the past hundred years, innovation within the automotive sector has brought major technological advances, leading to safer, cleaner, and more affordable vehicles. But for the most part, since Henry Ford introduced the moving assembly line, the changes have been incremental, evolutionary. Now, in the early decades of the 21st century, the industry appears to be on the cusp of revolutionary change—with potential to dramatically reshape not just the competitive landscape but also the way we interact with vehicles and, indeed, the future design of our roads and cities.

Pretty dramatic stuff, no?

THE HIGH POINTS

Recently, we've watched new technologies appear that make driving more autonomous: collision-avoidance systems, lane-assist, and so on. But the shift from those systems to fully autonomous car seems huge -- the purview of Google's in-house geek squad in the deserts of Nevada (and, if Steve Jobs were still alive, remote areas of California) rather than mainstream automakers. 

However, the folks at KMPG and the Center for Automotive Research have identified four major reasons that the roll-out of autonomous technology may be speeding up:

Market dynamics: As we've pointed out many times before, the auto market is changing. Young drivers around the globe are more interested in texting and staying connected with friends than driving. As these consumers age, they'll be leading the charge toward automation.

Furthermore, things like the cost of car ownership, the maintenance of streets, and growing urban congestion are changing the way we think about transportation. Down the road, those surveyed suggest that these factors will have a major impact on the way that cities are designed and the way that we get around.

Convergences: The changes in mindset mentioned above are happening at exactly the time that autonomous technology is beginning to come into its own. From parking-assist to adaptive cruise control, more cars in showrooms are coming loaded with helpful tech for drivers.

But that kind of sensor-based tech is one-sided. To be truly useful, vehicles need to be connected to one-another in a network. Coincidentally, vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) technology is also being tested by a range of automakers and agencies. As V2V and sensor-based technology evolve side by side, that could ratchet up the deployment of self-driving cars.

Adoption: Importantly, most of those interviewed for the study agree that there won't be 100% adoption of autonomous vehicles -- at least not for the forseeable future. Adoption will depend on a range of factors, including cost, marketing, legislation, and availability from both automakers and aftermarket companies.

In the study's "base case" scenario -- neither conservative nor aggressive -- autonomous vehicles would be treated like high-occupancy vehicles, given their own lane(s) for transit. Since many cities already have dedicated HOV lanes, this wouldn't require a massive investment on the infrastructure front. The autonomous vehicles might move in "road trains", like the kind recently tested by Volvo in Spain. Over time, more lanes could be dedicated to autonomous vehicles, without municipal governments breaking the bank to keep up.

Implications for investment: Ultimately, autonomous vehicles stand to provide more efficient transportation to the public as well as financial benefits to consumers, governments, and the private sector. For example, fewer crashes mean less demand on some emergency services. Fewer traffic jams could lead to greater productivity.

But this part isn't without it's problems. Fewer crashes mean less demand for steel, which affects a broad range of interests. And as America becomes more urbanized, car-sharing may become more common, meaning less demand for car ownership -- which manufacturers probably won't like.

Bottom line: like the rise of the internet economy, the evolution of the autonomous car will cause huge shifts in the way we live and do business. If you have time, you can download the entire report in PDF form by clicking here. (It's only about 30 pages long, so it's a quick, interesting read.)

Does this sound reasonable to you? Does the inevitable arrival of autonomous vehicles tickle you pink or make you see red? Drop us a line, or leave a note in the comments below.

The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of the best auto bloggers out there. Our guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. To contact us about a blogger, click here. To add or view a comment on a guest blog, please go to the blogger's own site by clicking on the link in the blog description box above.

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