Autonomous Vehicles – Serious Questions About The Future


Massive dollars and resources are pouring into development of autonomous vehicles, especially autos. Forecasts for this era of autonomy keep growing rosier, but underneath the forecasts are some serious issues and possible contradictions.

A recent study issued by Tu-Automotive, the UK-based automotive research firm and leading automotive event sponsor, defined the “digital” future of the industry as:

“the fusion of autonomous driving and mobility-as-a-service,” making cars, “a clean, safe and, almost certainly, electric form of mobility.”

This interesting study reflected the views of a wide range of industry participants, who were amply quoted. In the meanwhile, industry participants have been ramping up their forecasts and claims for autonomous vehicles.

GM, for one, announced late last year that it would launch fleets of fully autonomous vehicles, “robo-taxis,” in major cities in 2019. Their CFO stated that this robo-taxi business could be “potentially bigger than our current core business, with better margins.”

Tu-Automotive’s Report on Autonomy and Mobility

The Tu-Automotive report quoted experts from a very wide range of automotive and related companies. While safety considerations have been considered the paramount drivers of vehicle automation for most governments, it should be noted that this report is focused on the advent of auto mobility and digital services, so it does not dwell on safety as such.

The basic assumption appears to be that there will be a huge number of fleets of “robo-taxis” and other shared vehicles. They will be heavily endowed with digital technology that can provide a constant flood of information to the car and use this information to guide its driving behavior. These fleets may be operated by car-sharing services, e.g., Uber, Lyft; by OEMs, e.g., GM, BMW; or other participants from the information and tech field, e.g., Waymo (Alphabet), (Apple??).

The report suggests that over the decade of the 2020s, the industry will progress to the point where over one-half of all cars sold will incorporate what are labeled “new mobility services,” i.e., some type of car-sharing service operations and extensive information services.

It is also suggested that this will increase profits of auto manufacturers, as more of their revenue derives from digital-based services, and also that their total sales of vehicles will not decline, at least not more than very minimally.

Claimed Benefits From Autonomy and Mobility

A number of benefits are specifically cited from this trend to digital-based services.

A. Parking: Cited as a major and increasing problem, autonomous vehicles will presumably use superior information to that available for today’s human drivers – downloaded to the vehicles from the cloud – about where to park, thereby somehow balancing out the provision of parking space and reducing the crush in major cities’ downtown areas.

B. Pollution/Gas Guzzling: This will be reduced, even for non-electric vehicles, in large part by alleviating the large number of cars that at any time during busy hours are cruising, looking for parking spaces. Also gas usage is to be reduced by presumably more intelligent routing of vehicles.

C. Personalized Services: The in-car information capabilities, it is hoped, will allow service vendors to personalize ride services for individuals, via analyzing rafts of data and creating user profiles, or digital identities.

The report cites forecasts that by 2030 there will be 60 million vehicles on the road with Level 3 (conditional automation) or 4 (high automation) autonomous technology. (Note that this estimate is based on the 6-level breakdown for automation, issued by the SAE International (Society of Automotive Engineers) in which Level 5 is Full Automation. This breakdown has superseded the U.S. earlier 5-level system.)

Our Take: Questions About the Autonomous/Mobile Future

First, we point out that we consider the report to be very well done and an excellent and fair presentation of the views and outlook of industry leaders. We’re impressed that the companies quoted included a wide range of industry participants:

  • Uber
  • BMW
  • Audi
  • Ericsson (see our article: “Ericsson – The Seductiveness of Autonomous Vehicles” 3/31/16)
  • Ridecell (see our article: “RideCell’s Path from Ride Share to Autonomous Vehicles” 3/7/17)
  • SEAT
  • Wireless Car (Volvo)
  • MaaS Global (Finland-based provider of mobility-as-a-service options for users) ForgeRock (California -based provider of digital identity solutions)
  • Xevo (Seattle-based provider of data and AI solutions for automotive)
  • German Autolabs (provider of an automotive digital assistant)
  • Ptolemus (Belgium-based consultants on automotive mobility and telematics)
  • Sensible 4 (Finland-based provider of vehicle automation software systems) and
  • FIA (the international federation of motor sports.)

We’re also pleased that an industry that has been totally spawned by the mobile cloud – convergence of mobile and cloud computing – is receiving so much support.

However, at least four issues concern us:

1. Utilization: We are prepared to believe that, conceptually, the utilization rate of autos would increase under an era of autonomous mobile vehicles, from its typical low rate of about 5%. However, we find it a difficult leap to conclude that the number of vehicles being produced by auto OEMs would not decline.

2. Public Transport: Reinforcing our doubts in the above point 1, since the acceptance and efficiency of autonomous mobile vehicles, such as dependence on robo-taxis, pretty much demands major improvements in public transit, which is a point that is emphasized several times in the report, we see this factor as detracting somewhat from the increase in the rate of autonomous vehicle usage and also further tending to decrease the likely production and sales by auto OEMs of new vehicles.

3. Weather: One of the most important points that we are not seeing discussed at all (and we have been looking) is the fact that weather risk in the era of autonomous vehicles is going to pass from today’s owners to the car-sharing fleet companies. This is a critical factor. Autonomous vehicle advocates have, by and large overlooked the fact that autonomous vehicles are going to be helpless without extremely detailed, hyper-local weather, including road conditions, information.

4. Mobile Communications: It’s obvious that this is a big potential stumbling block, but one that many of the industry parties do recognize. We’ve detected a sort of nodding assumption by some that somehow 5G is going to solve the issues of how you can turn a potentially dangerous vehicle loose on the road and reliably get the instantaneous transfer of information to and from it that you need. This is wishful thinking. 5G, as conceived and designed, will never, by itself deliver the solution, although it can be a part of it. It is the alternatives that have to be thought through, even invented.

Incidentally, we’ve worked extensively in both the Weather and Mobile Comm’s segments of this autonomous vehicle area, and are certain we know the answers for point 3, Weather Info, and 4, Mobile Communications – however, they are matters of confidentiality right now and will have to wait for another day to be discussed.

Read the Tu-Automotive report on automotive mobility:

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