Assessing the real future impact of autonomous vehicles


Bold predictions and skeptical challenges abound regarding the speed with which autonomous vehicles could emerge. The evangelists believe we could see a rapid evolution from “level 1” function-specific automation of tasks – such as stability control – through to “level 4” fully self-driving vehicles. Indeed, in early 2017 Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla, claimed that full autonomy could be less than six months away.

Whilst development to date has been relatively slow, as with most current fields of technology, we are likely to see a rapid, if not exponential, acceleration of the self-driving sector. Hence, for the vehicle recovery and repair sector, now is the time to start thinking about the potential evolution of autonomous cars and the resulting implications and opportunities.

Dramatic claims are being made about the potential for autonomous vehicles to cut accident rates, drastically reduce the need for vehicle repairs, improve fuel management, increase traffic flows, and lower the number of taxis required in a city. This could transform the automotive sector, enhance the productivity of human drivers, make car journeys fun again, render cities more livable, and reinvent auto insurance. Here, we take a look at where some of these claims stand, and bring a futurist’s professional perspective to assess the cultural and consumer shifts that could arise from a move toward self-driving cars.

Accident rates: An op-ed written by Barack Obama in 2016 cited the fact that 94% of car accident deaths are caused by human error. Making driving safer is a key assumption when it comes to promoting the adoption of autonomous vehicles. But the actual record of autonomous vehicle deaths and injuries so far suggests there is work still to be done, nor does the available data provide a very complete picture. Far too many road conditions are as yet untested, and the high-profile fatality involving a Tesla on autopilot has generated some negative sentiment. The evidence base will of course improve as the quantity of trips and miles driven rises, and the number of manufacturers of semi- or fully-autonomous vehicles increases. The cars will also get safer with continuous improvement in the underlying autonomous management systems powered by artificial intelligence (AI).

One of the main ways that accidents and casualties will be addressed in self-driving cars is via the AI systems on board. These systems are complex machine-learning software applications that draw data from a range of vehicle sensors, learning from experience and an ever-increasing awareness of their surroundings – which are used to update the initial knowledge base they were trained with. Not only will the system tap into its own elaborate internal sensor network for information, it will also interact with and learn from other vehicles using V2V (vehicle to vehicle) as well as V2I (vehicle to infrastructure) and V2X (vehicle to everything) communications. The automated car will be a communications hub for a number of in- and on-vehicle devices (e.g. cameras) and objects (e.g. seats), of which the human occupant is just one. The converging influx of information is assumed to provide a safety net, although this is still an unproven hypothesis.

This represents an interesting challenge for those involved in vehicle maintenance. Reductions in accident rates would lead to lower demand for recovery and repair services. The upside is that there are an increasing number of upgrade kits becoming available to add varying degrees of autonomy to a conventional vehicle. Fitting these add-ons could become a major revenue stream for repair garages.

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