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The cost of autonomy

Date: 21 September 2017   |   Author: Rachel Boagey

Many mainstream manufacturers believe they will have fully autonomous vehicles available by around 2020, but industry experts suggest that it could be 2030 or even 2040 before we see these vehicles on the road.

These experts gathered at a London Assembly Transport Committee meeting in City Hall, where they discussed the fact that while the technology to enable fully autonomous cars may already exist, many hurdles still need to be overcome by the industry before the vehicles can be widely adopted in the community.

One particular issue holding back the roll-out of fully autonomous vehicles is the cost, explains Professor Natasha Merat, research group leader for human factors and safety at the University of Leeds.

"I'm thinking it's going to be over 20 years before we see a fully autonomous vehicle on our roads, because the issue of cost is going to remain until that point in my opinion, along with many other issues that are coming to light such as trust, uptake, availability, infrastructure and connectivity," she says. "It's not until all of these factors are addressed that we will see fully autonomous vehicles becoming a reality on our roads."

That cost, according to Merat, is currently far more than the industry is willing or able to pay. "Although many manufacturers are throwing dates around for their predicted fully autonomous vehicles to launch, theoretically, there are lots of barriers that will come to light when considering the implementation of autonomous vehicles on our roads," she says. Merat gives the example of a fully automated vehicle that can go from A to B without any intervention, a vehicle that she estimates will probably cost around £150,000.

In fact, by 2020 or 2021, the date that many manufacturers are labelling as the year they will release their fully autonomous vehicles, the cost of the technology will need to significantly decrease "and it's not just a case of a few hundred pounds either", Merat says.

In fact, she explains, "This cost has to reduce quite massively if fully autonomous cars are really going to be introduced for privately and publicly owned vehicles."

Also speaking at the roundtable was Rob Wallis, CEO of the Transport Research Laboratory (TRL).  "Automated technology in cars will help to prevent accidents and reduce congestion and emissions in cities, offering a more pleasant experience for motorists," he says. But Wallis agrees with Merat when it comes to the issue of cost. "Before this takes place, the cost of the technology really needs to be addressed."

The TRL and its UK project partners, including Bosch and Jaguar Land Rover, are benefitting from a £5.5-million grant from InnovateUK. The three-year project will test autonomous cars in Greenwich, London. "The project is aiming to accelerate the entry of automated, driverless car technologies into the UK market, as well as looking at testing of these technologies at a lower cost to vehicle manufacturers," Wallis says.

When it comes to the wider industry, Wallis is hopeful that the new technology can bring down cost. "The speed of innovation of technology is driving down unit costs, and projects such as this will further decrease those costs," he says. "Today, it's financially prohibitive to buy a large number of these cars to operate a fleet, but hopefully in five years from now that financial prospect will be very different."

He continued, "The industry is shifting towards autonomous cars as a way to provide a service to users and increase safety and efficiency on our roads. The industry needs to ensure it's not just commercial benefits that are driving
the agenda."

It's not just cost that is a prohibitive factor in the uptake of fully autonomous vehicles, either. "When you take the driver out of the equation some of the time or all of the time, there should be a demonstrable decrease in the amount of serious injuries and deaths," explains David Wong, senior technology and innovation manager at the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders.

However, from a regulatory standpoint, there are a number of challenges to overcome, Wong points out.

"The UK is one of the leading markets for autonomous vehicles, but according to our Road Traffic Act of 1988, these vehicles cannot be deployed because this act does not allow it - it instead requires humans to be in control of the vehicle at all times, presenting a significant legislation hurdle for the technology," he says.