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.).
When KPMG released their first white paper on self-driving cars in late 2012, we were surprised at how little thought they had given to the disruptive potential of fleets of driverless vehicles.They have corrected this now and a major headline and probably the guiding question of the report is: “Mobility on Demand: Why own a car?”
This year’s report begins with the realization that the “momentum around self-driving vehicles is astonishing”. The authors acknowledge that the “industry is moving even faster than we predicted”. They look at the variety and number of autonomy-related news events during the preceding months. They conclude that “the technology is evolving at a rapid pace”. While the industry is definitely gaining momentum, the statement may be a bit on the optimistic side with respect to the technology: If we sort through all the announcements and public demonstrations of some cars driving in some state of quite limited autonomy, we can not see that many significant advances have occurred in the past 12 months.
They then look at the history of the first automotive revolution and proceed to report insights from focus groups. This is useful but yields few real surprises (even auto enthusiasts are willing to use self-driving cars; tech brands such as Google are a little more trusted even than premium auto brands with respect to the technology).
The most interesting section deals with a potential decrease in car ownership: “If half of all American families who currently own two or more cars were to give up one of their vehicles, how would that affect the automotive industry”. They point out that the ratio between fleet and retail sales could “change dramatically”. Mobility costs could decrease for the consumer and big data and dynamic pricing will be a key capability for autonomous mobility providers. They also hint at adverse consequences for mass transit systems.
It is great that the major consulting companies are beginning to realize how disruptive this technology will be (and it is nice that they are coming around to a view that we already had published in early 2010 (Autonomous cars – the next revolution looms).
If the momentum continues to increase – which is very likely – next year’s report will be very different. Then they may be at their best and provide a much more detailed look at business models, competitive space, impact, and strategic positioning for automotive companies and other industries. We will be looking forward to the next report!
World politicians are increasingly taking autonomous vehicles seriously. They start to recognize the importance of autonomous technology and the potential to profit from this innovation. French president Francois Hollande just presented a road map to revive French industry by promoting driverless cars and other technologies. Although it does not appear that France is prepared to fund driverless car development directly, they want to help bring about collaborations fostering this innovation. At this point, this may be what is needed most. There are many funds for this kind research available within the EU and venture capitalists are also discovering the high revenue potential in the area of self-driving cars. It is more important to clarify the legal ground rules for testing and operating driverless cars and making sure that these rules allow for fully autonomous operation. Because only fully autonomous operation will unlock the transformative potential of driverless technology and with it the investments needed to bring it about.
France and the other European countries should make clear that the they have the right and the intention to allow the operation of fully autonomous vehicles in their own territory as soon as they are certified to be extremely safe and as long as their operation is technically limited to a clearly specified region within the nation territory. Such a declaration would remove the doubts about the Vienna Convention standing in the way of automotive progress. Removing such legal uncertainties would open the floodgates for investors seeking to gain the pole position in this transformative technology.
France has good potential to accelerate this technology. The nation is open to novel technogies, has a great research base, has leading sensor manufacturers, and – even if the auto makers have invested much effort into autonomous technologies yet – has some well-positioned companies in the space. An example is the company Induct. It has positioned itself on one of the paths towards fully autonomous technology which is most likely to succeed economically: They don’t try to to build the perfect consumer car which can perform autonomously everywhere at every speed; they use autonomous technology to solve the last-mile transportation problem in a limited and well known area and they initially focus on low-velocity operations which greatly reduces risk and therefore makes commercial success more likely. What they need are testing grounds, i.e. communities, airports, campus grounds where the vehicles can operate and be perfected.They have had problems finding testing grounds in Europe and have now found a more welcoming climate in Singapore – which is probably not what the Frence president had in mind…
Nevertheless, France should not go this path alone. It should at least partner with the other European countries to ensure that Europe remains at the forefront of this technology.
In Japan, prime minister Abe toured the streets around the parliament in Tokyo in three driverless cars (by Nissan, Toyota and Honda) in advance of the upcoming Tokyo Motor Show. Abe has made clear that he wants to advance “auto-pilot” technology as part of this economic policy.Japan has a long tradition of cooperation between government and industry to bring new technologies forward and is also a world leader in robotic technology – a key area that will both profit and play a crucial role in advancing driverless technology.
Overall, it is clear that autonomous technologies are starting to appear on the radar screen of world leaders. There are still too many misconceptions about this technology and the way it will come about. The views are still very auto-industry centric, focused on consumer cars, and fallacious ideas such as the ‘auto-pilot’ analogy still cloud their judgment. But behind all of this, world leaders are beginning to realize that a major innovation is in the making.