Everyone is going crazy about autonomous cars right now. All of the big tech companies are getting involved, including Apple and Google, and they don’t come much bigger than that. The traditional auto makers, seem to have been caught on the back foot, and are now rushing to experiment with their own research into the field.
In the meantime we continuously see strange little boxes like the Google thing, and another headline about a car having driven around San Francisco for a month without a driver. However we still havent quite made it to the tipping point where an autonomous car actually goes on sale.
Whilst we wait for this moment though, it seems to me there are a few fundamental questions with the autonomous car as a concept. Firstly how many people will choose that option? We know that Google maps and any equivalent is only accurate to a point, and we know the coverage for rural areas will not always be there. This means all cars will need to have ‘manual’ controls, for when autonomous technology wont be able to work. It therefore stands to reason you will have to have your usual controls, but you will have the option of also having the autonomous kit. So people will need to then make a decision on whether they want to pay the extra to have the autonomous kit, just like any optional extra like ‘lane assist’.
The additional cost then calls into question how much someone would use it. You start to look at where it is useful. It seems the easiest place to use it is on motorways, where constant speeds and simple maneuvers fit the autonomous cars well, and allow people to travel further without tiring. It’s also a place where not many people enjoy the driving experience. However in cities, will autonomous cars be greatly beneficial? The constant frantic cutting and weaving that is associated with city driving. The vast aray of pedestrians, cyclists and other types of transport, appears something an autonomous car wouldn’t be suited to. There is also the question of attention from the ‘driver’, with autonomous technology, is the driver still expected to pay attention to the road? Can you go out for a few drinks and then direct your car to drive you home? These are all questions which add into the autonomous vehicles business case.
The biggest question I can see however with the autonomous tech, which doesn’t seem to have been asked, is with insurance. Insurance companies currently provide one of the biggest legalised cons of our generation, able to wiggle their way out of any attempt for you to get them to pay out. However you currently drive your car on the premise that if you cause an accident your insurance has to pay out. But if you are in your car and your car is in ‘auto’ mode, and it causes a collision, you weren’t at fault, your car was at fault. Worst still if your car causes a collision and you or someone else is killed. That is not your fault, that is the manufacturers fault. Suddenly the manufacturer should take responsibility for the safety of its products in a much more complex environment than previously. Suddenly people are killed by a Ford, or a Renault, and not just by an accident. That is publicity no manufacturer wants. This will be a very interesting issue for manufacturers to deal with, as it places the responsibility on them rather than the individuals.
As the various corporations play around with this technology, there still doesn’t appear to be any consensus on where or how it is going to be applied. Only that it’s coming. A long the way some of these questions should or will be answered and those answers could well determine whether this will be an Apple Watch or an iPhone.