Autonomous Vehicles Are Coming…But When?

November 20, 2014  - By
IAV_OMD_3760 Photo: Denso

IAV Automotive Engineering test vehicle. Photo: Denso

The autonomous, or driverless, vehicle market seems to be a big side topic at connected car conferences. Location technology will continue to play a role in the development of autonomous vehicle markets. However, many view a fully autonomous vehicle to be more than 10 years away — these are usually folks from the auto industry or academia. Others, those who lurk around Silicon Valley, believe that driverless cars will be on the road in half that time…and once again, if Detroit doesn’t move on it, they will.


Just as GPS was once thought of as science fiction — something that naysayers said would not be fully operational for decades — autonomous vehicles are now thought of as an extension of the connected vehicle market. However, technology and legal issues will make the implementation of an autonomous, or driverless car, a tenuous road in the next few years.

One executive from Verizon Telematics, which is a major player in connected car technology, said it is going to take time, perhaps between the years 2025-2030, to grow the autonomous vehicle market.

“You just can’t flip a switch and have autonomous vehicles [on the road]. You have to take baby steps to develop a network, build an infrastructure and condition the marketplace,” said Kevin Link, Verizon Telematics senior vice president. “The collaboration is going to have to be more than one player, including the government. It was a while before desktop computers evolved into laptops.”

While the technology hurdles will be significant for autonomous vehicles, there are features today that will help shape the market, Link said. “Mercedes cars remind people to steer and turn around corners, when to stop at a safe distance and to change lanes,” he said. “These are not taking you from point A to point B autonomously, but real-time connected car features will feed into the autonomous car.”

The evolution of autonomous vehicles will not be derailed at this point, given the intensive research and investment focus from both the private and public sector, said Tim Johnson, NextEnergy director of transportation initiatives. “However, cars that ‘drive themselves’ will not be in mass production in the next five years. Ten years, maybe. Five, no,” he said. “This is not a technology-limited premise. The technologies are rapidly approaching realistic use in limited applications, but the regulatory, liability and infrastructure aspects are far from being fully implemented in the next five years.”

Technology Hurdles Await Early Autonomous Vehicles — More Regulation than Technology?

Some of the technology hurdles center around the speed, capacity and logic of the vehicle and infrastructure systems to manage the significant amount of information required for self-driving vehicles, Johnson said. “If it was possible to wave a magic wand and have all vehicles made simultaneously capable of these communications and logic decisions, it would be much more viable to create a mass, public environment for self-driving cars,” he said. “In reality, there will be an extensive transition period, possibly 15 to 20 years, where capable vehicles will need to deal with incapable vehicles. Once again, this is not so much a technology issue as it is policy, regulation and liability.”

Autonomous Products Already Out There…

Autonomous vehicles will only continue their current momentum as the technology for assisted driving is already well underway with features like self-parking, lane departure warning, predictive collision warning, back-up collision intervention and blind spot prevention, said Scott Frank, Airbiquity vice president of marketing.

An example is the Infiniti Q50, which uses Airbiquity technology for Infiniti InTouch Apps. “What we’re going to see from here is a shift from driver assistance to zero driver involvement — the ultimate expression of autonomous vehicle — where the car does all the driving and there isn’t even a steering wheel or brake pedal,” Frank said. “We won’t see fully autonomous vehicles becoming commonplace in five years’ time due to the massive amount of technology, infrastructure development and integration that needs to happen to ensure the requisite amount of safety.”

NextEnergy’s Johnson said that cars that drive themselves are already in use in restricted access sites, such as military bases, restricted commercial and university locations, national lab campuses and more. “These are the first real-world applications of both the vehicle and infrastructure technologies to test the practical limits of semi-autonomous driver-still-behind-the-wheel cars,” he said. “Much like the FAA use of limited test sites for the development of regulatory aspects of drone flight, these sites are providing the information and insight to move the potential of cars that drive themselves closer to everyday use.”

Denso-W Photo: Denso

A Denso autonomous test vehicle drives the track while a plastic friend looks on. Photo: Denso

Will Public Transit Be the First Proving Ground?

Most companies have different opinions when asked whether the public transit area will be the first major market, and serve as the catalyst, for autonomous vehicle growth. “Although we don’t know for sure, it could be that automated public transit programs, will operate in controlled environments with known routes [meaning low speed operation with pedestrians/bicycles operating on the same thoroughfare, but the automated transit system does not have rails or guide ways — the route planning is easily changeable with no impact to the transportation infrastructure],” said Roger Berg, Denso North American Research and Development office vice president.

Denso believes the autonomous vehicle market will encourage additional functionality within the premium car model lines, but gradually these advanced driver assist systems will become more and more common and eventually spread through even the economy car segment, Berg said. “First systems deploy warnings or simple lateral and longitudinal vehicle control. But then functionality for what most people refer to as ‘driverless cars’ or ‘automated driving’ would only be usable under fairly benign driving and traffic conditions, such as some level of automated highway driving,” he said.

Public transit as an “early adopter” business model is viewed to be less probable in the near term as many of the technical challenges facing autonomous operation require significant research and development and capital investment, said Chris Hennessy, IAV Automotive vice president, engineering. “Most of this capital is centered on markets where the return on the investment can be substantial. At the moment, the most likely scenario for a reasonable ROI is in the premium-brand automotive market, where consumers are willing to pay a premium for new technology,” he said. “This market and the technology growth that will occur from this early-adopter market will provide a foundation for cost-effective proliferation of this technology to other markets, where either the operational boundary conditions are narrower or the available capital is lower, which is typically where public transit would fall. Exceptions to this condition could be analogous to the light-rail market, where the interaction to the general public can be controlled and managed with isolated tracks or lanes of travel, but this would require significant planning and capital investment in infrastructure.”

Airbiquity believes that public transit will not be a first adopter. “No, the first adopters will be private parties in urban areas providing a value proposition to people struggling with congested cities, long commutes, and high parking costs. You’re going to see small and innovative companies offering car services with autonomous vehicles operating on city grids at lower speeds,” Frank said. “They will source the autonomous vehicles from non-traditional automotive makers that move faster than traditional automotive makers. Local government will also be involved, since they own the majority of the infrastructure and need to ensure safety standards are established and met.”

In other location news:

  • Kore Telematics, fueled by a large investment in it by ABRY Partners, bought RacoWireless in an all-cash deal, according to published reports. The transaction will give the companies a combined 3 million M2M subscribers.

About the Author: Kevin Dennehy

Kevin Dennehy is GPS World’s editor for location-based services, writing a monthly column for the LBS Insider newsletter. Dennehy has been writing about the location industry for more than 20 years. He covered GPS and location technology for Global Positioning & Navigation News for seven years. His articles on the wireless industry have been published in both consumer and trade magazines and newspapers.

1 Comment on "Autonomous Vehicles Are Coming…But When?"

Trackback | Comments RSS Feed

  1. William K. says:

    Autonomous vehicles are indeed almost ready to become mainstream, they have only two more issues to resolve: First, who is financially liable when the system allows an accident to happen, and second, how can the system be programmed to safely handle unanticipated situations, such as things that have not been planned for? Yes, they are fairly important, so no, they can’t be ignored.