With so much debate surrounding driverless vehicles and their potential place in society, it can be a very confusing topic for anyone who’s not an expert.
You’ll have read somewhere that we won’t be seeing them until the 2030s and somewhere else that they’ll be chauffeuring us around as early as next year and, to some extent, both of these could be true.
In fact, vehicles with autonomous driving technology are already on the road in the UK and have been for quite some time. While these are a far cry from the fully autonomous robot taxis that you’re probably imagining, it’s proof that this technology is slowly being implemented into our existing infrastructure.
So, let’s start by clearing a few things up. There are six levels of autonomy a vehicle can have, starting at level 0 (entirely manually driven cars) and going up to level 5 (entirely autonomously driven cars).
At the moment, anything up to level 2 is legal in the UK without restrictions. Features of these cars include automatic braking, accelerating and steering, but this is for limited sections of a journey and these vehicles still require a driver to constantly monitor the situation and be ready to take control if something goes wrong.
For this article, autonomous means level 5. We wanted to explore which types of vehicles are most likely to become fully driverless first, what kind of barriers they will face and how our progress compares to other leading nations in this sector.
Commercial AVs vs Private AVs
The technology will likely be implemented in certain vehicle types that are most adaptable to this kind of change and in industries (or even sectors of industries) where it is most plausible. We believe commercial vehicles and public transport are the most likely to make the transition first.
1. Financial Aspect
Big companies will be among the few that will be able to afford the technology in the early stages of implementation. With Autotrader expecting self-driving packages initially costing anywhere between £53,000 and £114,000, it is unlikely your average road user will be able to afford it straight away.
It’s not just that private vehicle buyers will be priced out of the market either. Even though courier firms will have to make a hefty initial investment in the technology, they will see returns on it in the long run. Autonomous vehicles will be able to work longer hours and have lower running costs than ones which require a qualified driver.
According to a report called The Future of Driverless Haulage, the technology could save the industry between £33bn and £47bn on insurance, labour, vehicle utilisation and fuel after only 10 years of implementation.
Private vehicle owners will have none of these incentives early on, making it less likely that we will see widespread use of them in that sector for a little while after. However, as with any new technology, the cost will drop quite rapidly as it’s perfected and commercialised, meaning private vehicles won’t exactly be lightyears behind their commercial counterparts.
2. Fewer Route Variables
Delivery vehicles, particularly ones driving from depot to depot or at night, typically have fewer variables on their route for algorithms to assess and respond to, reducing the risk of an accident.
Most depot-to-depot routes consist mainly of motorways and major roads, which are much easier for driverless vehicles to navigate. There are already cars you can buy, such as the Volvo XC90, with level 2 automation that can brake, accelerate and keep lanes automatically on roads like this with ease.
Driving at night is already common practice for delivery drivers with long routes, especially lorry drivers, due to there being less traffic. This would be particularly advantageous for autonomous vehicles, as there would be fewer cars on the road and fewer human variables for the technology to contend with.
However, most multi-drop couriers (i.e. amazon, royal mail deliveries) don’t have quite the same advantages. Their routes change every day and can sometimes have such remote drops that GPS struggles even to navigate human drivers there the first time around, and it has been proven ‘that outside of city limits, driverless systems are far less reliable or viable’.
It’s certainly more likely that single-drop couriers (lorries, large vans) will benefit from the technology sooner.
This is simply the case that cargo, such as groceries or building equipment, is always going to be less reluctant to travel in an infant AV than humans. It won’t have seen I Robot or Bladerunner and isn’t exactly programmed to understand the worst-case scenario in the same way we are.
As of 2018, 52% of people surveyed in the UK said they would never consider buying or renting a driverless car, with only 81% saying they wouldn’t feel comfortable as a passenger in one.
While yes, that does leave a sizable minority willing or at least open to being persuaded to try AVs, it’s hardly a gap in the market that most automobile firms will feel is worth exploiting just yet. The demand for normal cars still far outweighs the demand for AVs for now and the foreseeable future.
The private market will only open up once firms can prove how safe the technology is. And there’s no better way to test it on UK roads than with delivery vehicles, with no more willing participants than inanimate goods.
Potential Barriers to Entry for Self-driving Vehicles
"Self‑driving cars ‘will boost binge drinking'"
1. Public Opinion
The UK public’s opinion of AVs has drastically declined over the last few years or so, lending to a somewhat dystopian image of drone filled skies and robot wars on the road. We already found out how few people in the UK would even consider buying one and that number is only falling.
In 2017, 42% of people surveyed thought that AVs would improve road safety, a number which dropped to only 23% just a year later, showing people’s reluctance not only to buy them but for them to be on the road at all.
The media is partly to blame for this, with headlines such as The Times’ ‘Self-driving cars will boost binge drinking’ or the BBC’s ‘Tesla autopilot crash driver was playing video game’ seeming to dominate coverage of the topic. But, even to the most fervent optimist, the validity of these claims is hard to argue against.
Leading players in the industry aren’t exactly doing their best to ensure progress, with perhaps the most famous proponent – Elon Musk – being the biggest culprit of this. Tesla cars have caused the only 5 fatalities recorded in level 2 vehicles and the company has been accused of overstating how advanced their technology is.
In an article published by the Internet of Business in 2018, claims were made that, by calling the semi-autonomous systems ‘Autopilot’, Tesla was misleading customers into thinking they had to pay less attention to the road than was actually the case. Although the company admits it is driver-assistance technology and not an actual autopilot, IoB claimed their choice of phrasing could lead to confusion over the cars’ actual capabilities.
Since that article was written, two more fatalities have been recorded involving Tesla level 2 vehicles and there is a danger that they are painting AVs in a bad light. People aren’t going to feel safe amongst vehicles with higher levels of autonomy being tested when the ones that have already been approved aren’t entirely safe yet.
Infrastructure could be a major barrier in the UK for the progress of AVs. According to a report by Visual Capitalist in August 2019, the UK ranked 10th out of the leading 20 countries in terms of infrastructure readiness for autonomous vehicles.
The main reason for this is that the UK’s infrastructure is so reliant on using petrol and diesel as fuels. Self-driving vehicles are going to be electric. In fact, we’re almost certainly going to see manual electric vehicles dominate the roads before the first fully autonomous vehicles even pass testing.
Axa boss Amanda Blanc has already raised her concerns about the UK’s readiness for this kind of change pointing out in an article by BT in January 2018 that ‘a lack of charging points and extra strain on energy supplies’ could prove to be a serious roadblock in the development of electric AVs.
She described the current difficulties alternative fuel cars pose to infrastructure – who currently account for only 7.3% of the UK market (statista2020) – referencing the National Grid warning that ‘electricity demand could rise by more than the capacity of Hinkley Point C nuclear power station by 2030’ if widespread adoption of the technology occurs.
How Other Nations are Breaking Down Barriers for Autonomous Technology
In that same report by Visual Capitalist, the UK ranked 5th in terms of overall readiness behind Sweden, the US, Singapore and the Netherlands, making us by far one of the leading nations in the development, testing and implementation of autonomous vehicle technology.
Other nations face different challenges to us in terms of barriers to entry, so it’s interesting to look at what they’re doing to overcome them and think about what we can learn from how they’ve gone about it.
During February and March 2020, the Chinese government had relaxed regulations on AVs in response to the COVID-19 crisis. Autonomous vans were deployed by authorities to help disinfect streets and deliver food and medical supplies across the country in the absence of human drivers.
As a result, demand for these vehicles has skyrocketed, leaving supplier Neolix’s inventories depleted in the space of just 2 months. What’s interesting is the effect this has had on public opinion, with a spokesman for the company stating ‘people’s perception toward driverless delivery had a complete 180-degree shift’.
When you consider China ranks 15th in terms of consumer readiness (compared to the UK’s 3rd) and this change in opinion is specifically related to delivery vehicles, it proves that breaking down what is proving to be a significant barrier to entry might not be as difficult as it currently seems.
While we’re certainly not wishing for a crisis to speed up the progress of AVs, this indicates how quickly the British public could come around to the idea of driverless delivery if they are shown it’s safe and beneficial.
2. The US
The US is also a leading nation in terms of its readiness for AVs (ranking 3rd overall), with by far the most advanced technology at its disposal. Like us, they face similar infrastructural difficulties, as their transport systems are reliant on oil.
However, unlike us, they face significant difficulties in terms of regulation & policy. Where a government study found the UK’s ‘regulatory framework is not a barrier to the testing of automated vehicles on public roads’, GM had to request ‘exemptions from 16 federal standards’ in 2018 to test its AVs.
Despite needing to completely restructure ‘more than 60 federal standards governing the design, construction, performance, and durability’, the US is still leading the way in terms of testing autonomous technology. And guess what, it’s delivery vehicles that are making the biggest strides.
Walmart announced that it will be testing an autonomous grocery delivery service, hoping to ‘expand to the general public late in 2020’. They will be using Nuro’s custom-built R2 prototype, which you can watch in action below.
UK Government Backing Autonomous Vehicle Development
It might not be that long before similar levels of testing become commonplace across the UK either. The government is especially keen to cement our position as a leading nation for the development of AVs (creating a plan of action in 2015 which you can view here), as there is the potential that ‘self-driving cars could provide a £62bn economic boost by 2030’.
A report ‘for the SMMT by Frost & Sullivan, ranked the UK above competitors including Germany, US, Japan and South Korea’, stating ‘the UK had the essential building blocks – forward-thinking legislation, advanced technology infrastructure, a highly skilled labour force and a tech-savvy customer base’ – to integrate this technology into everyday life.
As such, the government has invested ‘more than £500m (…) in research and development’ and ‘another £740m in communications infrastructure’ in its bid to help keep the industry moving on the right path.
While this seems encouraging, it’s important to keep in mind the statement made at the beginning: that implementation will be incremental.
It makes more financial and logistical sense for commercial and public vehicles to make the transition quicker than private drivers. So, while it will probably be decades before you’re cruising around, feet up with a glass of champagne as the car takes care of all the driving for you, catching a self-driving bus or having your groceries delivered by robots might only be just around the corner.