Picture this: you are on a busy city street and need a taxi, so you tap your phone and within moments a car pulls to the kerb. There’s no driver inside but as soon as you’re belted in, it pulls away towards your destination. Imagine being at an airport seeing driverless ‘pods’ shuttle people and cargo between terminals, or cruising down a motorway and glancing into another speeding car to see all its occupants fast asleep.

The question is not whether these changes will happen, but how soon. That’s why all the leading automotive companies are already jostling for position to maximise their stake in what will, within the next decade, become an everyday means of transport. And how will they make it happen?

By forming partnerships:

  • with tech companies to develop vehicles that can pilot themselves safely,
  • with government bodies, insurers and law firms to develop an infrastructure that can cope with this new reality,
  • and even with rival car manufacturers.

“It’s important that collaboration is right at the centre of every project,” says Professor Paul Jennings, a physicist at the Warwick Manufacturing Group (WMG), a department at Warwick University, a leading UK institution helping industrial and academic partners “get to market more quickly and competently, exploit all the huge opportunities that are coming and overcome some of the challenges”.

Top of that list of challenges is safety. The perceived risks currently dominate public perception of this autonomous future, but Jennings says this usually changes when people understand the rationale behind minimising human involvement in driving.

“The more we talk to people so that they can understand the advantages, the more supportive they are. More than 90 percent of accidents on the roads are down to human error. If we can get this right we can save lives, so that is a very strong motivation.”

Global collaboration

Another way these collaborations are developing is through the British government’s £20 million, three-year Autodrive project, in which 16 automotive, technological, academic, governmental and legal organizations have come together to get autonomous vehicles on the roads. One of them is tech firm RDM Group, which collaborates with WMG and is fitting laser, radar and ultrasonic sensors to low-speed electric vehicles known as ‘pods’. Sales and Marketing Director Miles Garner says: “WMG has an excellent reputation for churning out some very clever people, and one of the projects we’re working on with them is to understand how autonomous pods can operate in a testing lab.

“We’re also collaborating in America with Arup, a global firm working in every aspect of today’s built environment, using its offices in Texas. They are often involved in new town and city engineering – a lot of governments are looking at ways of taking cars out of the city, and Arup is landing a lot of contracts in that field.”

All around the world, autonomous vehicles are pulling into view – from Sweden, where Volvo is trialing 100 self-driving vehicles in Gothenburg, to Australia, where RDM Group is developing an autonomous cargo transporter for an Adelaide business park, to America, where Silicon Valley firms are pioneering much of the new technology. To an extent this is already in use: automatic braking and self-parking are established features of many cars today. Industry experts foresee the technology progressing through stages regarding the driver’s degree of involvement: first ‘feet off’, then ‘hands off’, ‘eyes off’ and finally ‘brain off’, at which point a vehicle’s occupants will be able to sleep while traveling. It’s expected that in around eight years’ time we will reach the ‘eyes off’ level whereby the driver can sit reading a book when the car is cruising; then sometime after 2025 the steering wheel will phase out and truly driverless cars become commonplace.

Shared mobility future

Businesses spanning manufacturers, tech giants, and cab-hailing services know that pooling knowledge, finding efficiencies and effectively collaborating is the only way to reach that milestone. Earlier this year Jaguar Land Rover made a US$25 million investment in Lyft, a rival to Uber headquartered in San Francisco. Lyft expects its fleet to be almost wholly autonomous in five years’ time. “Lyft envisions a future where shared mobility will transform cities and improve people’s lives,” says co-founder and President John Zimmer. “This partnership will help us achieve that ambitious goal.” Toyota has paired with the Californian tech company Nvidia; Daimler and the parts supplier Bosch is aiming to manufacture ‘robotaxis’ by 2020; and BMW, Delphi, Intel, and Mobileye aim to get a fully autonomous vehicle on the road by 2021.

Benjamin Braun, Marketing Director of Audi UK, adds: “It will be essential for policymakers, ethicists and car companies to collaborate to ensure these machines act in ways that are consistent with our values.”

Adapting new technologies

The auto manufacturers’ collaborations are not just with firms outside their industry – it benefits everyone to set aside rivalries and ensure that all brands of autonomous car speak the same language. Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) is working with Ford and Tata Motors’ European Technical Centre so these companies’ cars can talk to each other. JLR’s head of research, Tony Harper, says: “This collaborative approach is a major stepping stone towards all connected and autonomous vehicles co-operating with each other in the future. Our aim is to give drivers exactly the right information at the right time, and collaborations with other manufacturers are essential.” As the auto industry has changed to embrace this revolutionary technology, so of course has the challenges involved in recruiting suitably skilled staff.

“If you went back many years in the auto industry,” says WMG’s Professor Jennings, “it was predominantly mechanical engineers, and now we’re looking at computer scientists, software engineers, psychologists, ergonomists. It’s a very different skill set. Moving forward to things like artificial intelligence, it’s turning into technology development almost as much as it is automotive manufacturing. We can see that there’s a need for more people with those skills.”

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