Autonomous vehicle roadmap: 2015-2030

Two and a half years ago I wrote a note on the various views about the paths for adopting self-driving vehicles. Since then, more and more signs point towards my ‘avalanche’ model, where the adoption of self-driving cars becomes a self-sustaining, accelerating process fueled by expectations of a fundamental transformation of the auto industry and major opportunities for profit.

As a thought exercise, I have sketched a hypothetical timeline which shows how this self-accelerating global innovation process could unfold. The purpose of the timeline is to show how autonomous vehicles could come into widespread use rather quickly and what kind of market and political forces could be involved. This is an extreme of many possible futures for self-driving cars:

2015 Google launches first short-range fully autonomous vehicle service in California at NASA Ames (not on public roads) and possibly in Mountain View (small scale pilot, limited to Google employees).

2015 The first auto makers (Daimler, Honda, Nissan?) announce major strategic initiatives and major investments to counter Googles’ threat and rapidly bring vehicles capable of full autonomy (Level 4) to the market.

2015 Car2Go (Daimler’s shared mobility service) announces a roadmap for autonomy in their car fleet.

2015 Automotive industry recognizes the implications of fully autonomous vehicles (transformation of mobility, significantly lowered worldwide demand). Analysts pound auto makers on their Level-4 autonomous vehicle strategy. Share prices begin a long decline.

2016 Google announces that their short range, limited-speed fully autonomous vehicle fleet will be built by Ford, Magna or others.

2016 China launches a major program to develop and deploy shared autonomous vehicles for local mobility. It recognizes that it can reduce infrastructure expenditure, jump-start their autonomous vehicle industry, reduce the ecological footprint of mobility etc.

2016 Google expands their short range autonomous vehicle service pilot to another US city that sees little rain and no snow, e.g. Las Vegas, NV or Sun City, AZ and starts their first overseas fleet.

2016 Price for semiconductor lasers used in LIDAR sensors falls below USD 150; this reduces the hardware/computing power costs for autonomous vehicles with 3D Lidars to below 10,000 USD.

2016 Transformative potential and benefits of autonomous vehicle technology are recognized widely. There is a bitter debate about the destruction of jobs.

2017 Several European countries have now adjusted their laws to allow the operation of fully autonomous vehicles on a national scale (not in international traffic).

2017 Autonomous long haul highway trucks start testing in the US, Europe or Japan.

2017 Rental car companies launch their own autonomous mobility inititiative.

2017 An international body for regulating autonomous vehicles is being formed in cooperation between the US, Europe and Japan.

2017 Google vehicles are now capable of driving in snow on pre-mapped routes.

2017 Automotive suppliers (Continental, Bosch, Valeo, or others) announce their own autonomous vehicles or special-purpose autonomous machines.

2017 Major road infrastructure projects are downsized because autonomous and connected vehicle technology have reduced the expectations on future transportation demands.

2017 Google moves their autonomous vehicle operations into a subsidiary which then merges with Uber and starts to roll out local autonomous vehicle mobility services in many more US cities.

2017 Singapore deploys the first autonomous bus for regular service. This is widely seen as a milestone for public transport and sends many transit corporations scrambling to update their strategies.

2017 The first countries mandate specific driving behavior for self-driving cars in certain driving situations.

2018 Car2Go starts to add autonomous vehicles to their fleet.

2018 The Google subsidiary/Uber merger rolls out autonomous vehicles internationally.

2018 Heavy investment into autonomous vehicle fleets and services based on autonomous vehicles. An almost unlimited amount of capital flows into startups and schemes. Countries compete trying to gain an advantage in the emerging new industries.

2018 Experience with autonomous vehicles shows that they are indeed much safer than the average human driver. People feel safe and comfortable in fully autonomous vehicles and there is no longer any question of user acceptance. No phenomenon similar to the ‘fear of flying’ can be found among users of self-driving cars.

2019 The Vienna Convention and European Laws are updated to allow the operation of fully autonomous vehicles.

2019 Autonomous vehicles now operate in over 50 cities worldwide.

2019 Rapid growth for autonomous trucks on specific routes. In many countries, truck drivers protest but this can only delay their adoption slightly.

2019 The first high-end consumer cars capable of fully autonomous driving on a large part of the national road network become available.

2020 The first countries introduce laws that prohibit bullying of autonomous vehicles (e.g. jumping in front of it to make it stop).

2020 Bleak outlook for automobile companies. Volume is down, consumers prepare for the transitioning to fully autonomous vehicles (which are not yet widely available for the consumer) or increasingly use/expect to use shared autonomous vehicle services. The fight for survival has begun: The auto industry has its “Kodak moment”.

2022 Prices for used cars decline. Too many people switch to shared autonomous vehicle schemes. Many others sell their old vehicles prematurely because they want to switch to the much safer fully autonomous models where they don’t need to drive if they don’t want to.

2022 The cost for autonomous vehicle hardware (sensors and computing power) has come down to 1500 USD.

2022 Mass transit companies increasingly rely on autonomous vehicles for transport. Transitioning the current workforce to a transit system based on autonomous vehicles is a major organizational and political challenge.

2022 Insurance rates favor operating cars in fully autonomous mode and prompt many people to stop driving on their own.

2023 Small autonomous buses are increasingly used for medium- and long distance trips. Trains have a hard time to compete on short to medium distances with autonomous buses.

2023 Most companies require that business trips with rental cars must occur in fully autonomous mode (for safety and productivity reasons).

2025 Fleets of autonomous vehicles now operate in most cities of developed nations.

2025 Automotive companies shut down more and more plants. Major automotive countries including Germany, Sweden and Japan desperately try to prop up their OEMs.

2030 Car ownership has declined dramatically. Only 20% of the US population still own a car (200 cars for 1000 people, today: 439 cars for 1000 people).  90% of all trips now happen in fully autonomous mode. Traffic accidents and fatalities have declined dramatically.

Singapore to start autonomous vehicle testing on public roads in 2015

Singapore clearly realizes the potential of autonomous vehicles for revolutionizing road transport. They already have several projects in place – including autonomous golf carts and a Navia shuttle. Now they have set up an oversight committee on Autonomous Road Transport which will support guidance on the research and implementation of self-driving cars. Besides government officials the board includes representatives from MIT, Nissan, Toyota and Continental.

Singapore wants to understand, shape and apply the technology to improve the road infrastructure. It envisions a greener future where a much smaller pool of cars provides urban mobility. In a first step, Singapore will allow testing driverless vehicles on select public roads of its one-north business district starting January of 2015. Of course, stringent safety measures must be in place. Another application of the technology for testing could be driverless buses that operate on fixed routes.
Singapore is the first city that systematically works towards a future with driverless cars. It recognizes that it needs to incorporate driverless technology into its long-term infrastructure plans already today. In addition, becoming a pioneer of this technology could lead to important competitive advantages for this city-state in the future.

Sources: Channel Asia 1,2

The race for leadership in autonomous cars is on: Volvo to deploy 100 self-driving cars by 2017

2013 has been a year with a lot of buzz around self-driving cars. While Google has been mostly silent about their progress, many other players have demonstrated prototypes of  autonomous cars (including Mercedes, Nissan) and announced intentions to bring more and more autonomous features to the market.

Now Volvo Cars has announced a project to deploy 100 highly autonomous cars in the Swedish city of Gothenburg by 2017. The cars will drive without the need for human supervision on selected roads in Gothenburg (including motorways, regular surface streets etc.). In autonomous mode their speed will be limited to a maximum of 70km/h. The cars will not yet be able to drive fully autonously; they may have to return control to the driver in certain areas or traffic situations (however the car will be able to handle all short-term traffic situations without help from a driver). The cars will use 360 degree sensors including cameras, Lidar and radar. More information about the project is available in a video by Volvo.

The project is very significant because of its scope, short timeline until implementation and because it involves key partners such as the City of Gothenburg and the Swedish government (Swedish Transport Administration and Swedish Transport Agency) who may have to remove any remaining legal road blocks.

With this project the race has begun to establish autonomous vehicle technology in real-live urban settings. Much as we have predicted, the cars’ autonomous operation will be limited to a very specific region: Only selected roads in withing Gothenburg which  are carefully mapped. The cars will rely on the mobile communications to receive map updates as needed. Thus Volvo will have to build an operations center which supports the autonomous operation on a day-to-day basis and issues updates to the cars for changes, construction zones etc.

Volvo Cars has reported losses in the first half of 2013 of about 90 million USD on revenues of almost 9 billion USD; with the global economic recovery this may have improved in the second half of 2013. Nevertheless, as one of the smaller car makers,  leadership in the autonomous space may be a good strategy for survival.

It is not clear, however, whether Volvo realizes that much of the growth in this technology will come from fleets of self-driving cars operating in limited areas. If Volvo really wants to profit from the growth opportunities in this area, they will have to re-think their model structure and introduce smaller, probably even electric cars aimed at short-range fleet operations. Being owned by Geely, a Chinese automotive company, Volvo could be in an ideal position to introduce the new paradigm of autonomous mobility to China (which would greatly benefit from fleets of short-range autonomous electric vehicles for urban, pollution-free mobility).

The project shows that autonomous technology has entered a new phase where real projects are being implemented which require the cooperation of car makers, technology providers, cities and governments. The British project in Milton Keynes is another example as well as the project to rethink urban mobility in Singapore (where the French company Induct are involved with their Navia autonomous shuttle as well as MIT).

Sources: Lindholmen Science Park, Volvo

Nissan tests autonomous Leaf on Japanese highway

Underscoring their intention to develop vehicles which are capable of full autonomy, Nissan has shown one of their autonomous Leaf prototypes on a public Japanese highway to the press. The auto-pilot system not only kept lane and distance; it also was also able to switch lanes, overtake other cars and merge into traffic at on-ramps. Although the highway segment was short and no details were provided on the quality of the lane markings (or localization algorithms) and merging capabilities, this event certainly shows that Nissan is committed to its vision of fully autonomous driving and aims to be perceived as an innovation leader. The event does not yet show, however, that it prototypes are more advanced than similar prototypes by other auto makers (e.g. Daimler, BMW etc.).

Sources: Nissan, Japan-News

Oxford Mobile Robotics advances driverless car research

Oxford’s mobile robotics group has been making rapid progress in the development of driverless cars. As Prof. Paul Newmann explained in a lively lecture last Thursday (as part of the 14th Annual Robotics Systems Conference), it took his group of 20 PhD students just 4 months to build an autonomous car that was able to navigate local streets.

Prototype Autonomous Car (Photo: Hars, 2013)

While being equipped with some algorithms for obstacle detection, the car primarily serves as a test bed for advanced navigation algorithms. Similar to Google, the group uses prior knowledge about the roads to be traveled, but their algorithms can work with much simpler and much less expensive sensors. The car does not need 3D LIDAR sensors. It uses a much cheaper 2D Lidar which is affixed to the very front of the vehicle. The rotating laser captures a slice of points with distance information in a single line below the car as well to the right and the left of the car. As the car moves forward and scans line after line a 3D picture gradually emerges. The car determines its position by comparing the data points gathered to its prior knowledge. The sensor can capture about 40 lines per second. This works well for low speeds but would have to be increased for higher velocities.

Prof. Newmann has also come up with a new approach for navigating in snow and rain. Localization can be very difficult when snow changes the environment’s appearance. His solution is only seemingly simple: instead of trying to detect invariant properties of the landscape, he proposes to accept that the environment may have multiple appearances. Thus he adds the different ways that the environment may look to his store of prior knowledge. As the car drives a known area, it identifies that prior view (winter, summer..) which most closely matches the data captured by its sensors and uses it for localization. It will be interesting to see how robust this approach of “experience-based navigation” can be and how many variations of the environment will be needed to allow fully autonomous driving.

The group currently has two driverless car prototypes; one of them is part of a cooperation with Nissan. It will be interesting to see whether Nissan will incorporate some of the groups navigation algorithms into their solution.


Nissan to introduce fully autonomous vehicles by 2020

As the first major auto maker, Nissan has announced that they will develop fully autonomous vehicles capable of navigating even in urban traffic without supervision. Nissan’s Executive Vice President Andy Palmer claims that – unlike Google’s  driverless car prototypes – these vehicles will neither require costly 3D LIDARs nor will they need specially created maps for navigation. Nissan intends to bring the cars to the market by 2020.

Nissan wants to build on the successes of its Leaf Electric Car and further associate its brand image with innovation. In the past year, Nissan has taken major steps to accelerate autonomous vehicle development: They moved their autonomous research group from Japan to Silicon Valley and are building a testing ground for urban autonomous driving which is slated for completion by the end of this year.

While most other car companies are active in the field of autonomous driving and some (such as Volvo) have made general statements about fully autonomous vehicles, the Nissan announcement appears to be the first which is accompanied by action.

From an innovation diffusion perspective it is interesting to see that the commitment to fully autonomous technology does not come from one of the the top three auto manufacturers but from a large contender who sees the technology as a means to gain reputation and market share. Nissan does not seem to be concerned about the medium term business implications – a transformation of the car market from individual ownership to mobility service providers and a significant reduction of the total vehicle demand. They may count on a first-mover advantage; in addition, the combination of electric vehicles (the Leaf) and autonomous capabilities might be ideally suited for fleets of locally operating autonomous taxis.

It remains to be seen whether Nissan will be able to master the complexities of urban traffic without the advanced sensors and prior knowledge which Google is relying on. Nissan certainly has the plate full to catch up with Google. But with this action by Nissan and the ever-clearer intent of Google to challenge the biggest auto manufacturers it is probably just a question of months until the next auto makers will jump on the bandwagon. The next revolution in mobility is picking up speed…

Source: Nisssan