IMAGE: Somartin — 123RF

Autonomous driving: it’s not about if, or even when, it’s here now

Earlier this week, I took part in a round table discussion on the autonomous vehicle at the Faculty of Engineering of the University of Deusto in Spain’s Basque Country (pdf), along with the director of the head of traffic in the northeastern region, Sonia Díaz de Corcuera, Spanish High Court judge Eloy Velasco, and the technical director of AIC and ACICAE, the Basque Country’s automotive association, Mikel Lorente. Before the discussion, Leyre Olavarría of carmaker SEAT, gave a presentation on their views about the connected vehicle.

The discussion focused on when autonomous vehicles would be on our roads. Some round the table talked in terms of the future, while I argued that self-driving cars are the present.

I presented a few facts to back up my arguments: Waymo’s disengagement figures for 2016 went from 0.8 to 0.2 every thousand miles. While the industry is still slowly advancing through autonomy levels from two to five, one company (and some others) has already managed to get a vehicle to drive itself most of the time, with the driver required to take control only once every several thousand kilometers. But curiously, when you show these figures to most people they refuse to accept them, saying it is not possible, and return to their comfort zone. I have seen this time and again with people from the automotive industry, politicians, institutions and the general public. For some reason, we refuse to accept that a machine can drive better than us, and we force ourselves to think in terms of science fiction and deny the evidence that a fleet of several hundred vehicles has managed to travel during 2016 some 635,868 miles in autonomous driving mode, which is to say 97% of all industry. That, to all intents and purposes, is called autonomous driving. And it is happening now, while the traditional industry strives to move from level two to level three.

That is why the big carmakers are talking about scenarios like 2030, while Waymo, Tesla, Uber and others talk 2020. And I believe that they are correct. Industries typically don’t change due to the influence of the traditional competitors, but to the pressure exerted by the new kids on the block.

The reason technology companies, rather than the traditional carmakers are looking at 2020 is because that is the timeframe that the current levels of adoption and technology suggest. True: if that date is not met, many of them stand to go out of business. When this kind of disruption takes place in a sector, it is rarely led by the companies with a dominant position, who always work and plan in the longer term, looking to protect their position, and even resorting to non-market strategies such as lobbying or legislative arguments of various types to try to avoid it. In this case, that’s not going to work: this is about saving human lives, so whoever slows down the adoption of autonomous driving will be responsible for thousands of on the roads. The self-driving car’s is an idea whose moment has come and nobody can stop it.

In the meantime, we need to get ready. A lot of people along the value chain are going to be affected. The arrival of the self-driving vehicle will bring another dimensional change: most people will not bother to own such vehicles, but instead use them as a service. The more forward-thinking carmakers are already looking to create partnerships with tech companies, major cities are rethinking their transport policies, which will decide whether their residents enjoy city heaven or are condemned to city hell, and meanwhile, motor industry continues to develop strategies in response to a fast-changing scenario. We’re talking about a tsunami that is going to slam into the automotive companies, taxi drivers and truck drivers, insurers, city councils, nations and the general public. In other words, nobody is going to be unaffected.

(En español, aquí)