Billions of dollars have gone into research for autonomous vehicles. Some say a “self-driving” feature will be as common as cruise control in the next ten years. Other predictions suggest the autonomous vehicle (AV) industry will be worth as much as $7 trillion by 2050.
The AV industry has the potential to change urban mobility as we know it today. It’s hoped that self-driving vehicles will provide welcome relief to hyper-crowded transportation systems. Millions of hours of commuting time could be saved each year with this technology. Congestion could be reduced and traffic flow improved using driverless vehicles. According to one study, an estimated 585,000 lives could be saved thanks to autonomous vehicles between 2035 and 2045.
So, are self-driving cars ready to go widespread? Not quite. According to Michelle Avary, the World Economic Forum’s head of autonomous mobility, the industry has two big challenges to overcome first: lucrative business models and technology.
Profitable business models
There is a myriad of ways to make autonomous vehicles profitable. In businesses like commercial trucking, construction, and mining, the prospect of self-driving cars shows a lot of potentials. In commercial trucking, shipping costs are reduced with self-driving trucks because there’s no longer a need for drivers. And that’s just one example of the possibilities.
Driverless ride-sharing services, sometimes called Robo-taxis, are being tested all around the country. Companies like Lyft and Uber are already deploying self-driving cars in limited areas without safety drivers.
Another bold prediction is the impact of autonomous vehicles on buses, lightrails, subways, and trains. While drivers and engineers may not be completely eliminated in this arena, chances are strong that the AV industry will have a large impact on these modes of transportation.
Problems with AV technology
Technology is crucial when it comes to self-driving vehicles. For vehicles to be autonomous, the technology must have the ability to spot and identify any objects it encounters. Then it has to determine how best to navigate around them. At the moment, available technology isn’t capable of doing this.
The AV industry relies on collaborative efforts between automakers and software companies. There are likely to be mergers and partnerships formed between such companies in coming years. There are also going to be some glitches along the way. Certain global factors could interfere with the forward movement of the AV industry. Among these are recent tensions in trade between China and the U.S. Issues like these keep companies from sharing datasets that are geography-specific and hurt progress.
Apple recently acquired an autonomous start-up vehicle called Drive.ai. The purchase confirmed suspicions that the company behind the iPhone has an interest in developing self-driving car software.
It remains to be seen which company will be the first to develop software that enables the AV industry to be fully realized.
Safety regulations for AV vehiclesR
While there’s a wealth of opportunity in self-driving cars, there’s also risk involved in their development. Before self-driving cars can go mainstream, there will need to be regulations.
Writing effective regulations for the management of mainstream autonomous vehicle usage will prove nothing short of a complexion issue. And the legislative process doesn’t move anywhere near the speed of technology and its advances.
Legislation on autonomous vehicles has been considered in at least 41 states and the District of Columbia. In 2018, H.R. 3388 was passed by the House of Representatives as autonomous vehicle legislation made to establish uniform standards for the AV industry. Democratic senators had reservations about the bill because the technology isn’t yet fully developed and is still in its early phases.
Safety risks of AV vehicles
The biggest concern anyone has about self-driving vehicles is safety. Companies test AVs every day in closed environments. They hope in the future to be able to launch self-driving fleets on public roads safely and turn a profit. The public is at the center of that substantial risk.
Forecasts say there may be as many as 21 million self-driving cars in the U.S. in the next ten years. This despite the fact that there are no federal standards currently in place. It’s the responsibility of Congress to put a federal framework in place along with funding for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
Self-driving cars still have some obstacles to overcome. But the market is huge and it’s not going away. Testing continues and Tesla already features an enhanced autopilot. Eventually, our society will become a self-driving one. Wise federal oversight will be necessary for it to be lucrative, safe, and functional.