Cleantech Market Intelligence
Excitement Tempered Around Self-Driving Cars
In recent weeks, Google has been publicly discussing the progress of testing its self-driving cars in more challenging environments. Most of the original testing was done on California freeways, so the driving was relatively straightforward. The more recent test routes have included a lot of local driving and urban challenges, like pedestrians and cyclists. These scenarios have made the company more confident that its technology is getting close to being ready for production.
However, some of the original optimism has been tempered by reality. In 2012, when the project was first made public, Google’s estimate was that the self-driving car was about 5 years away (2017). At the time, some technology commentators and the media got very excited about the potential and were forecasting production rollouts would begin well before 2020. In Navigant Research’s report, Autonomous Vehicles, released in the summer of 2013, we forecast that it would be 2025 before the technology would be ready for public use. Today, Google estimates the technology will be ready in 6 years (2020). Our forecast has not changed.
More Maps Please
It’s quite possible that Google will consider its technology ready for commercial launch in 2020, but that doesn’t mean that automotive manufacturers will have satisfied their own testing by that date. The automakers know that everyone will be watching autonomous technology very closely, and they cannot afford any mishaps. The testing will have to be very comprehensive. For example, GM has been testing its own Super Cruise system for 2 years already, and the production launch was recently described as “within the next 5 years.”
But it’s not just the testing that is holding up production release. The current Google vehicles have a rotating lidar scanner on the roof that not only costs more than the rest of the vehicle combined, but also is visually unacceptable for most, if not all, manufacturers. The hardware development has a long way to go to be able to achieve the necessary accuracy and blend into the vehicle styling. The Google system needs a high-resolution scanner and also relies on highly accurate digital maps. So far, the company has developed detailed maps of lane markings, traffic signs, and signals for about 2,000 miles of road in the United States, mostly around Mountain View in California. The United States has about 4 million miles of roads. A lot more digitization will be required for Google’s autonomous vehicles to be used anywhere in the country, never mind all over the world.
Navigant Research believes that self-driving cars will become a reality, but that the technology will be rolled out incrementally over the next 10 to 15 years. It’s great to see serious progress being made, but we still do not expect any major manufacturers to rush autonomous technology into production before 2025. More details on this will come out in our updated Autonomous Vehicles report, slated for publication later this summer.