Despite progress in vehicle safety in the past 50 years or so, travelling on the road is still dangerous, with more than 33,000 people dying every year. Semi and fully autonomous vehicles will change that, which is why the next wave of car safety technology is so crucial.
It’s been roughly four decades since the seatbelt reminder was introduced and almost 60 years since cruise control features were invented. While they have brought about increased convenience and safety, there are still too many accidents, most of which are caused by human error. But autonomous technology is set to be so disruptive that it will take the driver out of the equation and redefine mobility and safety.
“There’s a theory that an autonomous car will never crash, and so far the data supports that,” Scott Corwin of Deloitte Consulting told The Fuse. “The question is not whether technology will work, but how it will be adopted.”
Partial autonomy will allow vehicles to drive or brake without the driver needing to intervene, while full autonomy promises that cars drive themselves. In fact, passengers will be able to sit comfortably in luxurious conditions in fully autonomous vehicles, almost like traveling on a passenger liner in some cases, and concentrate on other tasks such as reading on their electronic gadgets or conversing with each other.
“There’s a theory that an autonomous car will never crash, and so far the data supports that. The question is not whether technology will work, but how it will be adopted.”
How quickly we move toward both partial and full autonomy depends largely on costs, regulations, consumer preference, and the speed of change in the auto and tech industries, but so far the velocity of learning and approval have been stunningly fast. “Today’s debate centers on whether the extended automotive industry will evolve incrementally toward some future mobility ecosystem or whether change will occur at a more radical pace and in a highly disruptive manner,” says Deloitte in a recent report on the future of mobility. “We believe change will happen unevenly around the world with different populations requiring different modes of transportation–so leaders need to prepare their organizations to be capable of operating in a range of distinctive futures—beginning in as little as 5–15 years.”
ADAS technology to provide transition to autonomy
No matter what, changes are afoot. In the next decade, more and more cars will have automated features—which include adaptive cruise control and automatic braking—that will allow vehicles to perform without human intervention. The most radical changes will include highway autopilot with lane-changing ability, long and short radar, and more complexity in GPS and mapping systems. Further in the future, cars will be equipped to handle autopilot in urban areas and will be able to communicate with each other through sensors.
A lot of changes over the past decade and a half have prepared vehicles for the shift to partial autonomy.
A lot of changes over the past decade and a half have prepared vehicles for the shift to partial autonomy. These features, part of advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS), have included functions that aid, warn and assist drivers. Some examples include forward collision warning, video capability, autopilot features, lane-keep assistance, and blind-spot detection. These technological developments occurred at a much faster pace than the safety features brought about from 1950-2000, a period that saw the introduction of seatbelts, airbags, antilock braking, and electronic stability control.
ADAS is now becoming more commonplace, and older cars can be retrofitted to include these capabilities. Boston Consulting Group (BCG) says, “ADAS features and sensor technologies are the building blocks of partially autonomous driving.”
That said, the problem with ADAS technology is that its penetration has been slow, and the growth of these technologies could remain slow because of costs, the auto industry dragging its feet, and regulators not keeping pace. The penetration of ADAS technology, according to BCG, is only 2-5 percent annually. “This is a significant missed opportunity, especially considering that ADAS technologies pave the way to partially and fully autonomous vehicles, which would reduce accidents—and their cost to society—by 90 percent or more,” said BCG.
Some of the top ADAS features that have been around for the past 10-15 years and aid drivers include night vision, cameras that help drivers park, adaptive headlights in the front, and surround view systems. On a positive note, costs are coming down at a rate of 4-9 percent per year. While some features aid drivers, there are others that warn them of certain dangers. Park assistance activates a beeper to alert them of anything behind the vehicle as they back up, while lane-departure warnings use either a beeper or a vibration of the driver’s seat to indicate the vehicle is veering into another lane. Besides aiding and warning drivers, there’s also ADAS technology to give assistance, with adaptive cruise control being the most popular. This feature can correct the car’s speed to keep a safe distance from the vehicle just ahead of it.
One of the biggest developments in coming years regarding ADAS technology is the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) requiring cars under 10,000 pounds to include rear-view cameras by May 2018. There’s also the potential for “intelligent speed adaptation” to hit the market that same year. This feature will automatically alter a car’s speed depending on the situation. Other likely features to soon be part of the move to partial autonomy include traffic jam autopilot, autonomous valet parking (it will find you that free parking spot), autopilot that will change lanes on the highway, and urban autopilot, which will allow vehicles to navigate city streets at relatively low speeds. With technology advancing rapidly, by 2025, fully autonomous vehicles should start becoming mainstream, with ride-sharing in urban areas the main impetus behind their adoption.
Autonomous cars will provide greater fuel efficiency from lighter vehicles and increased electrification of the car fleet, but many of the most important benefits to society will be in terms of safety.
Autonomous cars will provide greater fuel efficiency from lighter vehicles and increased electrification of the car fleet, but many of the most important benefits to society will be in terms of safety. Vehicles will eventually have control modules and sensors to allow them to communicate with each other and infrastructure to avoid hazards and accidents. How quickly the U.S. and other countries reach deep penetration of autonomy depends a lot on how the incumbents—the auto industry—adopt and how successful new companies such as Google are at dispensing their technology. The next decade provides a lot of promise in this area.