Navigant Research Blog

Hands Free, Autonomous Vehicles Surge

Scott Shepard — January 17, 2013

The start of 2013 has given autonomous and connected vehicle technologies a big boost.  In early January German automotive component manufacturer Continental AG, along with luxury car maker Audi, was granted testing licenses for autonomous vehicles in Nevada alongside Google (which has had a license since 2012).  Additionally, both Audi and Lexus debuted autonomous vehicle systems at the 2013 Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show (CES).  Similar technologies have also been unveiled by Nissan, which in late 2012 showed off the all-electric LEAF parking itself.  Connected vehicles also made a splash as Ford and Volvo showcased their cloud-connected vehicle solutions at CES.

The Lexus and Audi vehicles are outfitted with a number of systems that can track and react to changing traffic and infrastructure conditions as they emerge in real time, without driver input.  These systems claim to make driving safer (Google’s fleet surpassed 300,000 miles with no crashes in late 2012), and they’re enhanced by connectivity software, trumpeted by Ford and Volvo, that enable vehicles to use navigation and traffic information from sources like Google maps.  Further development will allow communications between vehicles (V2V) and infrastructure (V2X) to alert vehicles to changing traffic conditions in real time.

When autonomous and connectivity systems become widely adopted, they’ll make travel not only safer but faster, as stop and go traffic is reduced through fewer accidents, thanks to systems that automatically direct cars to remain safe distances behind other vehicles.  Additionally, V2X technologies can enable governing transportation authorities to better manage traffic management systems, particularly at busy intersections.  Theoretically, V2X could also be used to administer a vehicle miles traveled (VMT) tax, which is being explored in some U.S. cities.

While fully autonomous vehicles exist in test programs and pilots, sales to consumers are unlikely before 2020.  Though full autonomy is far off, smaller semi-autonomous systems branded as “driver-assist” systems, as well as cloud-connected vehicles, are beginning to emerge in greater numbers; this is exciting growing interest from governing authorities.

The benefits of these systems in terms of driver safety and traffic management are clear, but their adoption also confronts the idea that a motorist’s car is her castle.  The privacy concerns common to Facebook and Google, surrounding use of personal information and Internet search histories for targeted advertising algorithms, will confront the automotive industry.  Once everyone’s car is connected to the cloud, information regarding driving habits and destinations will also be available to companies and governments, at least on an opt-in basis.  These technologies present an exciting and efficient future, but their optimal use requires the adoption of a paradigm whereby mobility is no longer private but public.

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