Changing at speed — Autonomous classifications.

The times they are a changing, but the change isn’t in the wind any more its happened before you even notice it. We’ve seen an exponential uptake of new technology and services, in both the ‘traditionally’ developed and emerging worlds. The iPhone may be ten years old — but it seems like its been with us forever. Uber (love or hate it) seems like a table stakes of transport, arrive in a city that doesn’t have it and you have to resort to banging rocks together to try and fashion a wheel (at least that what it feels like going back to the old world of cash only Taxi’s and public buses with obscure ticking rituals).

Which brings us to the exciting future world of Electric Vehicles (EV’s) and Autonomous Vehicles (AV’s), well I say future — but the streets are full of Nissan Leafs and Tesla S’s already, and Audi just announced the new A8 which reaches Autonomous Level 3.

Autonomous Level 3?

Levels of Autonomy in cars, whats that? Like all good science fact and fiction we have numeric categories of autonomy — ranging from 0 to 5. Presumably they also follow the laws of robotics (but best not focus on that, as the 1st law is always broken, robots take over and we all die).

Level 0: As it implies, zero autonomous functions, all human control.

Level 1: Basic control of some feature such as steering or speed control is managed by the car, with human mostly in command ( think old school cruise control ).

Level 2: Control of both speed and steering in response to the environment. So this may be lane centering combined with cruise control, or parking assist. The driver can take hands / feet off the controls but must still be paying attention and always ready to retake control.

Level 3: All safety critical operations are handled by the car, and the driver can remove their concentration from the environment and operating of the vehicle, under certain conditions (ie on main roads). However the driver may be alerted to intervene.

Level 4: Is the fully autonomous vehicle we ‘expect’ there is no driver operation — or even the need for any manual controls. They do however only operate within their operational design domain (ODD) — so they will be limited to standard roads.

Level 5: Is the car operating with the same ability as a human, so able to driver anywhere in any conditions.

There is some controversy about Level 3 — as they there is a disconnect between the driver being ‘allowed’ to take attention away and being able to switch back into control mode — and all the observational, cognitive skills required to suddenly ‘switch on’.

Ford and Volvo have said they are not going to waste time on Level 3 — as they feel that intervention requirement is ‘unfair’ on the driver, and the leap to 4 isn’t chasmic. This decision to jump to the ‘good stuff’ rather than drip feed new features over a number of years, is industry responding to the changing uptake of behaviours and the new disruptive players threatening their heartland (Tesla, Apple, Google and Uber are all gunning for level 4 vehicles).

image (volvo)

The automotive industry has been historically as slow as any glacier, but they too are being forced to change at speed. The issue being — that it is not easy, especially as we are talking about putting peoples lives in the hands of software (in addition to hardware which they have always had to build to safety standards). The automotive companies will be liable for any accidents, so they will always make sure the cars err on the side of caution.

The cultural Change

Of course people need to want these products — to succeed they need to be cheaper and better than owning / driving a car. Ultimately human drivers will become demonised, as they will be responsible for bad driving behaviour and accidents, so like drink driving and smoking, it will rapidly become socially unacceptable.

Regulation will also speed the process, initially targeting commercial vehicles, which will reduce corporate operating costs and improve efficiency. No one will complain that haulage is automated and thus forced to behave impeccably on the roads and largely during the night.

So the question is how quickly will this all happen?

Well current estimates are all a little conservative with the take up of EV’s being the responsible for the majority of journeys by 2025 and AV’s by 2030. With recent statements from France and Volvo — I expect 3 to 4 years being knocked those figures. Moves are already afoot to demonised diesel — by pricing them off the roads, though fuel and vehicle taxation.

It is widely predicted that anyone born today — will never take a driving test. Why would they go though the effort and cost — when self driving ride hailing will be universally available? The ease and cost factor again forcing change though a better solution to needs.

So the future is accelerating towards us, and for once it looks bright.

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