New Delhi: It was Google that first flagged off self-driving cars. Tesla Motors, GM and Ford soon followed, and now with two bold moves, Uber, the on-demand car pioneer, is fuelling the race to the finish line.
On August 18, it announced a $300 million deal with Swedish car maker Volvo to develop fully driverless, or autonomous, cars by 2021; and also the acquisition of Otto, a San Francisco-based start-up focused on self-driving trucks.
"We have been piloting a programme where friends and family of our Advanced Technology Centre team can request a self-driving car through the Uber app. It`s still early days, but we are planning to expand this pilot to the Pittsburgh community," a Uber spokesperson told IANS in an email from San Francisco.
Uber will allow people in Pittsburgh to hail modified versions of Volvo sport utility vehicles (SUV) to get around the city.
In May, the self-driving car community was left in shock when Joshua Brown, 40, of Ohio was killed when his Tesla Model S electric sedan crashed into a tractor-trailer while on auto-pilot mode.
Billed as the first known fatal accident involving a self-driving vehicle, preliminary investigation indicated that the crash took place when the tractor-trailer turned into the Tesla`s path and the auto-pilot failed to apply the brakes.
Despite the tragedy, the backers of self-driving cars still see a great opportunity in an age when `Time` is a most precious commodity and people are spending too much of it driving vehicles on increasingly congested roads, or looking for parking.
According to experts, passenger vehicles travel a total of 10 trillion miles annually, at an average speed of 40 km per hour. They also estimate that, assuming conservative occupancy, people are spending 600 billion hours in vehicles.
"Most of the autonomous vehicle service providers and manufacturers are trying to free up this time," Thomas George, Senior Vice President and Head of CyberMedia Research (CMR), a Gurgaon-based market research firm, told IANS.
George, however, is clear that it will be quite a while before we see the phenomenon in India.
"It will take another generation to make an autonomous vehicle transportation network feasible and widely adopted among the low-automated geographical regions like India, while the US and China could see better adoption within 15-20 years," George told IANS.
According to studies, the global revenues from "connected cars" -- the precursor to fully autonomous or self-driving cars -- are growing at an an annual rate of 27.5 per cent and are expected to touch $21 billion by 2020. This is still minuscule when compared to the revenues of one auto maker, say, Toyota, which are in excess of $250 billion
Yet, that is the way future lies, and many countries are creating the infrastructure necessary for connected cars and, eventually, fully-autonomous cars.
In the UK, driverless car trials are likely to begin on a strategic road network by 2017 and a £15 million "connected corridor" from London to Dover will be set up to enable vehicles to communicate with infrastructure and even with other vehicles.
"All these moves indicate that the dream of autonomous vehicles is turning out to be reality," George added.
For Gaurav Sharma, Research Manager (Enterprise and IPDS) at the International Data Corporation (IDC), the true implementation and adoption will only happen as we thrive further in the connected economy.
"For any autonomous vehicle, data would be the real fuel that would help it sustain a safe and smooth ride. The timely collection, processing and sharing back of data/information between the vehicle and external (control) systems (or internally between the systems) would form its knowledge base and enable the vehicle to function smoothly in different conditions," Sharma told IANS.
To make autonomous vehicles a success, the associated laws, regulations, traffic systems, infrastructure, emergency response systems, manufacturing systems, data and information handling and processing systems will also need to undergo a change at a faster pace.
"The scenario does look feasible but the human touch is hard to remove, especially in a country like India where this would also entail managing the issues of a large workforce (drivers, mechanics, etc.) who will need reskilling/fitment in other jobs as we look forward to such scientific marvels in our digital economy," Sharma pointed out.
Safety is also a prime concern as malicious hacking of systems of fully-autonomous cars can cause massive damage.
"It`s important for the autonomous vehicle players to deliver high-security and cyber-security processes. In addition, more steps need to be taken to avoid Tesla or Google-like car accidents," George added.
For Sharma, "We are looking at the next decade, at least, for a mass adoption of driverless vehicles unless commercialised by companies like Uber (for ride-sharing services) while the people with the capacity to pay might end up owning it earlier than the masses, as always."