THE BLOG

Robocar Rises

01/12/2015 12:15 GMT | Updated 01/12/2016 10:12 GMT

The car has come a long way from its original role as the 'horseless carriage' and the next evolution is the driverless car, or 'robocar'. While the lack of a human behind the steering wheel is rather startling, our automotive future is set to be safer in the hands of sensors and software.

University of Michigan Transportation Institute research showed that during 1.2 million miles driven by driverless cars, there were 11 accidents - all caused by conventional cars controlled by humans, for example, a human driving into the back of the robocar while waiting at a red light.

Humans get distracted, tired and don't have 360 degree vision. They often make really bad decisions and are more likely to hurt other humans than self-driving cars.

Saving lives is a key motivation for the rise of autonomous cars. Governments, the auto industry and consumers are all aligned on this. While safety features in cars have been improving for years, the dream to eradicate road accidents is still the end game. 1.3 million people a year are killed in traffic accidents globally. Only a tiny percentage is through mechanical error - humans are the main cause.

Sensors are key in accident reduction. Most driverless cars will include Lidar - a laser radar that sends out pulses of light and creates a 3D picture of the surroundings of the vehicle. Seeing 360 degrees at all times is far superior to our two eyes.

The market is ready for self-driving cars. In a Cisco study of 1500 consumers across 10 countries 57% stated that they would be likely to ride in a car controlled entirely by technology. Polls from Brazil, India and China, where driving is extremely hazardous, intimated that 2.8 billion people are ready for robocars.

Manufacturers: adapt or die

While the big car companies know everything there is to know about making traditional cars, they don't know much about computing. This is where the technology names can disrupt - Google, Tesla, Uber and, according to the rumours, Apple, are starting with the computer and then adding the car.

Imagine a world where Google releases the source code for autonomous driving in the same way it releases its Android code for smartphones. Car manufacturers would build the cars off a technology platform owned by Google in a similar way that smartphone manufacturers build from the Android platform. The value in the data could be staggering.

As we've seen in the music industry, we want efficient and expansive service options. Streaming tracks is now the norm, replacing vast physical album collections. The car industry faces similar disruption and consumption for cars will shift from outright ownership to rental models. After all, with the average car being used only 4% of the time, does ownership still make sense?

In a world of car sharing we could use different models for different journeys. When travelling to the office, we could lift share or grab a car in the same way we use Uber today. In town, we may take a small autonomous pod and for long journeys we could select a luxury vehicle for comfort. The scenarios are endless.

When an industry is being disrupted is it not unusual for only a few or none of the incumbents to make it. When cars become computers with wheels, they will be subject to Moore's Law, where computing power doubles every 18 months. There has been no Moore's law in transportation before, setting the scene for massive disruption by new technology players.

The rules that have governed technology industries are about to be enforced on the transportation industry. We are likely to see car companies innovate at the pace of software companies, reinventing every aspect of the modern automobile. The result could be a completely flipped business model where cars go from being parked 96% of the time to being utilised for 90% of the time (with 10% for refuelling and maintenance).

Mark Hawtin (@MarkHawtin100) and David Goodman (@Davidgoodman100), GAM Tech Team