Navigant Research Blog

A Scenario for Managing the Transition to Autonomous Vehicles

Sam Abuelsamid — November 25, 2015

Transportation is all about moving people and things from here to there safely, conveniently, and efficiently. However, as we continue to develop new automation technologies and business models, we now have a plethora of new questions to answer about how we are going to move the transportation ecosystem from here to there. At the recent Automotive Tech.AD conference in Detroit, people from many aspects of the industry came together to discuss the future of mobility. While the horizon is still mired in fog, some interesting ideas did emerge.

As development of autonomous vehicles has intensified over the past several years, the problem of how human- and computer-driven vehicles can safely coexist on the road has been among the most vexing. During the development of the Autonomous Vehicles report, Navigant Research interviewed many of the companies involved in developing this technology. Among incumbent OEMs, the most common strategy has been a gradual progression of deploying more sophisticated automation in new vehicles. This would enable customers to get accustomed to the technology while at the same time allowing OEMs, suppliers, and regulators to validate its reliability and robustness.

However, it is becoming increasingly clear that the need for a hand-off between automation and a human driver when the automation encounters a situation it cannot cope with might be unmanageable. Testing by Audi has shown that transition typically takes 3 to 7 seconds, and in some cases as much as 10 seconds. In an emergency scenario, that is far too long. Companies like Google and Ford are instead focusing on developing fully autonomous vehicles with no human control.

This brings us back to the transition from more than 1 billion vehicles on the road globally to self-driving vehicles. One potential scenario builds on trends that we’re already seeing today in large urban environments. Over the past several decades, cities such as London, Singapore, Stockholm, and Oslo have imposed congestion charges on drivers wishing to access crowded city centers. In other densely populated areas such as Manhattan, an unusually large proportion of the population don’t own cars because the cost of parking is so high. They instead rely on public transport, taxis, and ride-sharing services like Uber.

The Early Years

In the early years of deploying autonomy, the vehicles will likely have limited capability and difficulty dealing with weather and predicting the behavior of human drivers. They will also likely be reliant on highly detailed maps and communication infrastructure. Imagine a scenario where cities like London or Singapore convert traffic congestion zones into autonomous zones.

Rather than tolls, drivers may park their vehicles and take an autonomous pod to their final destination. They could subscribe to any of several services that could be operated by companies like Uber, Google, or Apple or even by incumbent automakers. Pricing for the services could be set by the operators based on factors like availability and amenities in the vehicle. Since these vehicles would be operating in an urban area, they could be restricted to lower speeds for added safety.

As people become comfortable with the technology, the autonomous zones could expand and be added to more cities. Much of the central parking could be redeveloped or replaced by charging facilities for what would likely be electric vehicles (EVs). This would also provide a built-in market for OEMs to absorb the EVs required to meet future emissions and efficiency standards.

This approach could work well for areas with high population density, while outlying and rural areas could continue to use human-driven vehicles with various levels of driver assistance for improved safety. The horizon is still foggy, but the haze is starting to lift.

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