The auto industry is rallying this year as confident consumers replace dilapidated fleets with shiny new trucks and hybrids. But lingering like an unseen wolf inspecting its prey are autonomous vehicles with artificial intelligence just waiting to swipe the spotlight.
One thing the broader auto industry agrees on is that driverless cars are here to stay, with the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers predicting they will “easily” make up about 75% of traffic on the road by 2040.
"At the end of the day, it’s inevitable. This is going to happen," said Karl Brauer, senior analyst of Kelley Blue Book. "We’re going to get to the point where we are going to have the ability, if not the requirement, to have the car doing all the thinking for us."
From automakers like General Motors (GM) and Toyota (TM) to tech-savvy giants like Google (GOOG), companies have spent hundreds of millions of dollars developing autonomous prototypes in an effort to get ahead of the curve.
Even the federal government’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration took a closer look at the car recently, announcing a new research focus on autonomous vehicles in May and releasing a list of recommended rules and regulations.
However, Americans are still sitting back uneasily. A big majority, about 70% in a recent TE Connectivity survey of 1,000 adults, are not yet comfortable with the idea of a 2-ton car driving around without, well, a driver.
Major Speed Bumps
The biggest hurdle is garnering widespread regulatory support, not to mention getting insurers on board and collecting support from the masses. It could take many years.
Nevada, Florida and California are among the few states that have passed laws allowing for the testing of autonomous cars, and NHTSA in May paved the way for others to pass similar laws in an effort to improve research and expedite development.
But there is still a laundry list of things needed to be addressed before automakers will be able to start selling driverless cars to the public.
Among those will be assigning liability. When a driver slams into the bumper in front of them, it is their fault. But what happens when an almost statistically perfect computer malfunctions and slams into another car? Is it the fault of the manufacturer or does it fall to the driver? You certainly can't punish the technology.
"They will have to have a lot of safety redundantly built into the system, kind of like airplanes," Brauer said.
Having a hybrid of autonomous and non-autonomous cars on the road simultaneously will also have to be addressed by traffic authorities. If the cars aren't able to properly communicate with each other, the repercussions could be potentially fatal.
One solution would be if the government were to require that everyone buy an autonomous car (probably not feasible), or if it gave a deadline for people to purchase basic technologies such as vehicle-to-vehicle communication systems that allow cars to speak to one another on the road.
Perhaps the second largest setback is the prohibitively expensive cost of these cars. It is estimated to cost about $250,000 to build each of them due to the expensive nature of the advanced technologies used, according to Jeffrey Miller, IEEE Member and associate professor in the Computer Systems Engineering department at University of Alaska Anchorage.
The technologies go beyond just radar, cameras and global positioning systems. They have very pricey lidar systems, or laser radar that consume real-time data to give a three-dimensional view of the area surrounding the car to be processed by a series of computers that in some cases take up the entire back seat of a sedan. Google’s robotic car has $150,000 in equipment alone, and that could rise as features and technologies improve.
“It’ll be cost prohibitive for many people for a number of years,” Miller said. “Cost has to come down enough so it won’t just be [available to] the extremely wealthy.”
But that tends to be the case with most technologies. Not everyone could afford a cell phone in 1990, yet competition eventually pushed prices down and today mobile devices are being consumed by millions of people all around the world.
Thinking For Us
Analysts say these cars are coming no matter what, with the earliest estimates placing commercially-available robot cars within the next five to ten years pending regulatory approval. The technology is there, it's just a matter of getting the legislation, driver and insurance companies onboard, says George Magliano, IHS senior principal economist, told Fox Business.
The government’s recent acknowledgement of autonomous cars and new stats highlighting their safety offer signs U.S. authorities may be coming around to the idea, Miller said.
“America is at a historic turning point for automotive travel,” NHTSA said recently. “Motor vehicles and drivers’ relationships with them are likely to change significantly in the next ten to twenty years, perhaps more than they have changed in the last one hundred years.”
While human error is responsible for 80% of auto accidents, with humans getting into at least one fender bender every 100,000 miles, according to IEEE estimates, Google claims its car logged 300,000 miles without incident.
“Is there a chance a computer may have a glitch? Of course, we see this everyday with using computers,” Miller said. “Is it going to happen as frequently as humans making errors? Absolutely not.”
The cars are expected to become far more widely adopted than the fuel-efficient hybrids and electric vehicles made by the likes of Tesla (TSLA) on the road today. Their focus on safety is expected to be a major selling point for consumers, insurers and the government.
“As much as the environmentally friendly cars are important, these are specifically going to focus on safety,” Miller said. “That’s the primary idea here.”
As automakers focus on developing and testing driverless cars, the technologies will slowly start to be adapted into modern-day vehicles, representing a gradual yet inevitable shift.
Toyota, for example, partnered with Tesla and is expected to unveil vehicle-to-vehicle communication in its 2014 Lexus models when cruise control is activated, an early version of a technology expected to become a cornerstone of autonomous cars.
That kind of communication and instantaneous reaction time could feasibly allow a freeway of autonomous cars driving at 70 miles per hour just five feet from each other. Consumers polled by TE Connectivity believe that could help reduce congestion by 21%, improving productivity by 11% and fuel efficiency by 22%.
It’s a scary thought, and one that will likely take drivers a long time to get used to, but it could serve to significantly reduce traffic and make transportation all the more safer.