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Megatrends for this decade – XIII

Roadmap for autonomous vehicles. Full autonomous vehicles are not expected to became the “norm” in this decade. We shall wait for the next one and possibly till 2040 they will not take the upper hand. Image credit: SAE – Roland Berger

12. Autonomous vehicles and flying cars

There are already a number of autonomous vehicles, both self-driving cars and autonomous trucks. Additionally, there are several fully autonomous drones and a few airplanes flying in the sky.

Graphic representing the growth of vehicles, cars, trucks and motorcycles, in the last 70 years with projection up to 2030. Notice that the growth in this decade is fuelled by developing countries whilst the market in developed countries is flat or declining. Image credit: Sperling, D., and D. Gordon, Oxford Press

However, if we compare those numbers with the numbers of vehicles/planes we can see that the former fall in the curiosity domain. There are an estimated 1.4 billion cars in the world (in case you wonder, since 2017 China is the number one with 300+ million cars, having surpassed the US).

As shown in the graphic on the side, the number of vehicles is almost twice as much the number of cars, if you take into account motorcycles and trucks.

We have already seen an autonomous motorcycle, courtesy of BMW, but the point there was to show the progress of technology (and expertise) rather than paving the way to a real product.

If we look at flying objects we have autonomous drones (in the military but now also becoming available for commercial applications, like inspection of infrastructures). Very recently Garmin got approval for its devices to self-land planes.

All of the above is telling us that the technology to create autonomous vehicles is available. So the real question when looking at this Megatrend is what stands in between technology and its exploitation.

The biggest hurdles are regulatory. Of course, it is not about tardy regulators not doing their job and adopting/accepting technology evolution. It is about the principle of caution: before approving something be double sure that there are not issues. If a self-driving car has an accident it makes newspapers headlines. The few thousands autonomous cars have had very few accidents, the fatal ones can be counted on a single hand. On the other hand, 3,700 fatalities from car crashes occur every day, a staggering total of 1.35 people die every year and an additional 20-50 million suffers from non fatal injuries.

However, we need to factor in the “billion” of normal vehicles on the road, a million times more than self-driving cars. According to Tesla statistics (and their interpretation) Tesla cars are safer when in autonomous drive than when driven by the human driver but it remains to be seen what may happen as more and more autonomous vehicles hit the road. Are they really safer or is the current statistics biased by the fact that many drivers are actually finding this type of vehicles more predictable, hence contribute to avoid accidents? The questions on the table are many and this explains the reservation of regulators.

Over this decade it is obvious that more data (and more autonomous vehicles, foreseen to reach 10 millions in the next decade) will become available. That will provide both better interpretation of statistics and allow autonomous vehicles manufacturers to fine tune them for better safety.

In parallel we will be seeing progress in technology (sensors, AI in particular) and lower cost that in turns will make possible to increase the functionality (and safety) and increase the market demand.

What is most interesting in discussing this Megatrend is that the path forward consists of many little steps, both in terms of fields of application and in terms of growing autonomy. Looking at them provides us information on the evolution roadmap.

In terms of application (in order of deployment):

  • autonomous industrial vehicles (inside a factory/warehouse)
  • autonomous taxis
  • autonomous trucks
  • autonomous ships
  • autonomous cars
Levels of autonomous driving according to SAE J3016. Image posted by Mario Hirz

Autonomy is progressing every day. New cars are offering advancement in features:

  • detection of obstacles during parking (many cars have it)
  • detection of obstacles that might create an hazard during drive (approaching a car travelling at a lower speed)
  • automatic braking when an accident is foreseen
  • cruise control and automatic braking to slow down
  • autonomous parallel parking
  • autonomous vertical parking
  • autonomous parking without the driver on the car and pick up of the driver after a parking (autonomous valet parking)
  • autonomous driving with control hand over in case of problems
  • autonomous driving on highways
  • autonomous driving in traffic jams, queue

As you can see from this list it is a sequence of tiny steps that require on the one hand better awareness on the car side and generate increased trust on the “human” side. Likewise on the flying vehicle side:

  • autonomous hover
  • autonomous navigation and return to base
  • autonomous landing
  • autonomous obstacle avoidance
  • autonomous tracking (of a person, of a face, of an object)

There are now a few prototypes that are close to commercialisation (watch the clip) and it is reasonable to expect that by the end of this decade flying cars will be part of the landscape. Here, again, regulatory issues are a stumbling block. There is a need for a control infrastructure and it is well understood that the one in place today for controlling commercial aircraft does not scale to manage thousands of flying objects in a city (today’s aircrafts management involve vertical and horizontal separation that simply cannot be applied in a urban situation of flying cars (with present rules you could have just a few, 3/4 cars flying over a city in order to maintain separation). We will need to move to an autonomous flight control with each flying car coordinating with those in proximity for right of way. 5G and even more so 6G will be crucial to ensure communications.

Dubai has started to test autonomous flying taxis, expecting to have them in service by 2021. Image credit: BBC

Flying cars are seen as a way to reduce congestion in megalopolis and, as well, as a way to save on fuel (a flying car uses some 15% more power than a rolling car but by flying over shorter distance and not having to stop on the way ends up consuming less power).

We should also note that flying car were among the “forecast” already 50 years ago (I remember newspapers predicting them as a side effect of the emotional state we had seeing men landing on the Moon) and yet nothing happen in these 50 years. However, technology is now mature and it is reasonable to expect by the end of this decade quite a few of them, starting with cities like Dubai where a desert is conveniently available to support flying over an empty space, thus avoiding safety issues for those walking below…

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the New Initiative Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He is a member of the IEEE in 2050 Ad Hoc Committee. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.

One comment

  1. Thanks for the interesting post Roberto !! Flying cars are practically a must for science fiction-movies. Nevertheless, such vehicles maybe will not exist in higher numbers, as the future of 3D-transportaton may not be in the air (due to technical and regulatorily requirements), but above earth: https://ethicsplayground.wordpress.com/2018/01/02/flyingcars/