Recent investments, partnerships, and trial launches from across a fragmented ecosystem suggest the tide is turning from semi-autonomous driving in favor of fully driverless operation.
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Do Nothing by Halves
An Insight published by ABI Research at the beginning of 2016, General Motors’ ‘Super Cruise’ Autopilot Hits a Bump in the Road, examined how the key ADAS trends of 2015 would develop throughout 2016, and what the implications would be for the autonomous driving roadmap. Over the course of this year, the case and market potential for semi-autonomous driving has diminished, particularly relative to the increased focus on fully driverless operation and how the technology could transform mobility. In July, GM delayed its Super Cruise system yet again, citing the need for more digital map coverage and robust driver monitoring. The fatal Tesla crash threw into sharper relief the difficulties of balancing driver input and automated driving, and the potential for loss of life in situations where semi-autonomous HMI design is lacking. In the wake of a series of Tesla Autopilot-related incidents, Mercedes received strong criticism from the U.S. Consumer Rights group, which accused the brand of overstating the capacity of their DRIVE PILOT system.
While semi-autonomous development has suffered, efforts to bring driverless vehicles to market sooner than expected have ramped up significantly:
California legislation paving the way for low-speed testing of autonomous vehicles without conventional steering wheel or pedal controls–or even a vehicle operator
Numerous driverless bus trials in Finland, Australia, and Dubai, as well as 6 autonomous electric Mitsubishi cars in Singapore
Ford’s announcement to introduce a high-volume autonomous vehicle to support car sharing by 2021. To achieve this, the OEM announced investments in Velodyne and Civil Maps, in addition to acquiring computer vision vendor SAIPS and signing an exclusive licensing agreement with Nirenberg Neuroscience LLC for use of their machine vision platform. Doubling the size of their Silicon Valley operations will also help Ford to maintain close relationships with players to develop fully autonomous technologies and car sharing services.
Where No OEM Has Gone Before
The most substantial of the above developments is Ford’s announcement and investments relating to driverless vehicles, car sharing, and Ford’s transition from manufacturer of consumer products to mobility provider. The significance of this lies in the fact that OEMs are invariably keen to demonstrate and develop their autonomous systems, but only in so far as they retain a focus on the driving experience. The logical conclusion of fully driverless operation is car sharing, a mobility paradigm that represents a major disruption to a B2C business model dependent on selling as many cars as possible to consumers. Therefore, for a major OEM to articulate the difficulties facing them and to make strategic investments in the technologies necessary to develop disruptive driverless vehicles is a significant boost for the “direct-to-driverless” school of thought.
The Usual Caveats
As encouraging as the rhetoric and investments are to those stakeholders who favor bypassing semi-autonomous operation all together, it must be stressed that this is far from a clear roadmap outlining how Ford intends to transition away from a B2C approach heavily reliant on trucks such as the Ford F-150, surely the antithesis of the driverless urban car-as-a-service (CaaS). Indeed, Ford is not the first OEM to try to convince industry spectators that they are fully braced for the upcoming car-sharing paradigm, with competitors such as VW and Toyota engaging in high-profile investments/partnerships with ride-hailing vendors Gett and Uber respectively. OEMs would do far better to consider the implications of CaaS, and its integration into Mobility-as-a-Service (Maas), on the user experience and adjust their product development accordingly. Concrete proposals for reconfigurable interior displays and a means of identifying users for personalization, for example, would be a far more convincing signal on the part of OEMs that they are ready to meet the challenges implied by driverless vehicles.