By the Blouin News Business staff

No longer sci-fi: driverless trucks, cars gain momentum

by in U.S..

The driverless specially outfitted Audi Q5 sport-utility vehicle following the car's return from a cross country trip, April 2, 2015. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The driverless specially outfitted Audi Q5 following the car’s return from a cross country trip, 4/2/15. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

On Tuesday, Nevada’s governor announced the state had given permission for Daimler AG to test its self-driving heavy freight truck for the first time in ordinary traffic there. The vehicle is akin to a plane with autopilot — a human driver is still required by state law to be present, but can be doing other tasks. Trucks would become mobile offices, where the accompanying person could be handling say administrative work but also ready to take manual control of the vehicle if needed.

Autonomous vehicles are attracting a lot of hype, first and foremost thanks to their manufacturers’ promise that they are far safer than the conventional type. After all, fully 90% of accidents are caused by human error, with a steep toll — every year 1.2 million road fatalities occur worldwide. Daimler also says autonomous vehicles will save freight companies money on fuel costs through more precise usage.

Industry experts believe that after the first driverless cars appear (possibly as early as 2020) there will likely be a 20-year phased transition before they make up a majority of the vehicle fleet in the U.S. The next stage will be an increase in the capabilities of semi-autonomous cars, which can handle some highway and urban traffic. Human-driven cars with assistance is already the norm, with cruise control, anti-lock brakes, collision detection, rearview cameras, and GPS navigation. More advanced features, such as pedestrian protection technology, traffic jam autopilot, and adaptive cruise control are forthcoming. Over the last two years, many automakers, including Volvo, Audi, BMW, Tesla, GM, Nissan, and Daimler, have either tested or unveiled plans to test semi-autonomous vehicles. And 90% of leading automakers have already signed deals with Mobileye to install the firm’s “crash avoidance” systems (using cameras and radars) in their newest vehicles, which costs around $1,000 to install.

Recognizing the benefits, “a vast number of insurance companies” are exploring discounts for those semi-autonomous features, said Xavier Mosquet, head of Boston Consulting Group’s North America automotive division. In a September survey conducted by BCG, respondents said the main reason they would choose a semi-autonomous car is lower insurance costs. Consumer receptiveness to these vehicles, for reasons of safety and cost, is encouraging news for automakers that aim to bet big on this emerging industry.

Some companies are playing the long game with big technology investments in the fully-autonomous field. Google’s driverless cars use an extremely pricey roof-mounted laser to continuously scan the environment. And Nokia’s HERE division has a 90% market share in embedded automotive maps, which helps its system provide instant 3D modeling of nearby vehicles and adjusts a vehicle’s route accordingly.

But three major and interconnected challenges remain for the growth of autonomous vehicles. Besides much more testing, new regulatory legislation is needed, as are clearly defined liability issues for autonomous vehicles. Daimler chose Nevada because of its thorough rules on autonomous vehicles, but it is one of only four states (and Washington, D.C.) to have passed laws on the matter. Understandably, automakers do not want to do real-world testing without a legal framework in place. Liability is another uncertainty, but according to Mosquet, what will likely happen is a shift from driver liability to product liability. This way blame and cost will be assigned to the automaker, or whatever supplier is at fault in the event of a crash.

None of these challenges are insurmountable, however. It’s no longer a question of “if” driverless vehicles will ever appear, but “when?”