They said we’d be riding in flying cars by 2020. While this vision hasn’t quite materialised, the turn of the decade is seeing tech and automotive giants locked in a silent and secretive battle. The quest? To seize control of the futuristic driverless cars market which could be worth $41.25 billion by 2024.
The modern revolution started in 2010 when Google announced it had been experimenting with driverless-car technology for more than a year.
The foundations had been laid decades before – notably with Norman Bel Geddes’s Futurama exhibit at the 1939 World Fair, which predicted modern motorways and argued humans should be removed from the process.
In the 1960s, the UK’s Transport and Road Research Laboratory experimented with driverless cars powered by magnetic cables embedded in the road, while advanced sensor technologies were adopted by the US military.
What the Google announcement did, however, was to take driverless technology out of the realms of fantasy and into the conceivable near future. No longer a niche topic for government automotive and military agencies, driverless technology was suddenly at the heart of the agenda in Silicon Valley.
Car manufacturers started to sit up and take notice from 2013 – especially General Motors, which acquired Cruise in 2016, and Tesla, whose astronomical investments have paid off.
Autopilot – a technology which can assist with parking, lane centring and which has adaptive cruise control – was launched in 2014.
According to a report into the impact of driverless cars, this marks stage 2 of 5 in the journey towards full automation. Next up: cars performing every function all by themselves, with orders given by the driver. But the ultimate goal is full automation, which will need to see cars connected to advanced algorithms.
Enter Big Tech, which is determined to make this vision a reality and to win control of the market. In 2016 Google launched side-project Waymo, which began a limited trial of self-driving taxis in Phoenix, Arizona. In the same year, robotaxi rival Uber also started piloting automated vehicles.
It’s perhaps unsurprising that Apple has also thrown its hat into the ring. Project Titan was launched by the tech giant in 2016; a series of strategic recruits and the 2019 acquisition of Drive.ai has the smartphone specialists poised for action.
It’s a high-stakes battle dominated by billionaires. Developing this kind of tech is expensive, but whoever succeeds in creating the first prototype approved for use on public roads will reap rewards from an extremely lucrative market.
Cisco is trying to lay claim to the Big Data side of driverless technology using blockchain. Outside of Silicon Valley, China is a key player in the drive for an automated vehicle revolution. Chinese search engine Baidu released a fleet of 45 autonomous cars onto the streets in 2019. Since the country’s road system is now larger than America’s, the Chinese government could be next to invest.
The growing importance of software know-how threatens to reset the automotive economic model. Some say car ownership will soon be a thing of the past, with motorists taking out contracts with tech companies for access to cars.
Still, some traditional car manufacturers have spotted the momentum and are trying to get ahead. Some are buying tech start-ups, while others forge inter-company allegiances to future-proof their profits.
Hyundai partnered with Aptiv in 2019 and the BMW-Intel-Mobileye partnership is pushing for a big product launch in 2024. As traditional players scramble for a place at the table of automation, allegiances and loyalty are bound to be tested.
How will automation reach its next stage? Part of the challenge lies in convincing the public to trust this technology – especially following the high-profile 2018 Uber crash that killed 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg. This event has contributed to a downward trend in public trust.
For this roadblock to clear, the major stakeholders need a breakthrough: perfectly-preened machine learning algorithms that can detect danger better than the human brain. Whoever achieves this wins the PR battle surrounding driverless cars, too.