Depending on the definition you choose, autonomous vehicles are either already a commercial reality, or are still a decade away from making a meaningful impact on the automotive marketplace.
One thing that most experts can agree upon is that self-driving cars, vans and trucks are eventually going to be a hugely disruptive force, specifically with regard to employment. From transport and logistics to manufacturing and agriculture, vehicles which can operate without the need for a human behind the wheel could render millions of jobs redundant and make recruitment tougher.
So how far along the automated vehicle timeline are we at the moment and which firms are taking this technology to the next level?
One of the companies which has made its developments in autonomous driving technology conspicuous to the general public is US electric car manufacturer, Tesla. Its now famous Auto Pilot system provides pseudo-automated capabilities, meaning that its vehicles can not only accelerate and brake without the driver's input to avoid hazards or maintain a constant speed in traffic, but they can even change lanes and turn corners.
The fact that Tesla is not an historical brand, but rather a company that has been selling cars for a little over a decade, is representative of wider trends in the mainstream emergence of self-driving vehicles. Well-known manufacturers such as BMW and Volvo have made strides with autonomous technology, but they are also facing competition from companies which have traditionally focused on other industries, such as Google and Apple.
Some marques are being vague about their plans to roll out truly autonomous passenger cars, while others are willing to commit to firm deadlines in an effort to seem as forward-thinking and dynamic as emerging rivals such as Tesla. Ford, for example, has said that it will have a self-driving car on the market by 2021, as well as announcing its intention to sell only hybrid and electric vehicles by the start of the next decade. In this context, autonomy is seen as going hand in hand with environmental friendliness and an end of the reign of fossil fuel-powered vehicles.
Passenger cars becoming smarter and whilst graduating to true autonomy is one thing, the real economic changes brought about by this technology are likely to be set in motion by the adoption of self-driving vehicles by businesses.
Recent trials of platooning systems, involving autonomous trucks driving in synchronised chains along motorways, have been carried out in Europe. And the UK is soon to host its own trials, with DAF being one of the manufacturers involved in this project.
Platooning has a range of benefits in addition to the obvious factors of convenience and safety. Because the trucks are able to drive incredibly close to one another, far closer than would be achievable using human operators, they take up less space on the road, easing congestion issues. They also become far more fuel efficient, costing haulage firms less to run and emitting fewer harmful gases and particulates into the atmosphere.
Autonomous HGVs are certainly part of the solution, but one of the more problematic contributions to traffic levels on British roads in recent years has been made by light vans, spurred on by the boom in online shopping and the associated home deliveries.
Operating in urban environments presents far more problems for self-driving vehicle technology because of the number of obstacles, hazards and variables that need to be taken into account. But this has not stopped ambitious firms from taking on this challenge. A recent small-scale test of autonomous grocery delivery vans held in Greenwich, London by Ocado is just one example as to how such hardware is already being deployed in the field.
Mercedes-Benz has an arguably even more impressive vision for the future of autonomous delivery vehicles. Its Vision van concept is not just an LCV in its own right, but is equipped with on-board drones which can be dispatched from the roof to drop off goods at customers' homes whether or not they are in.
Calculating Arrival Time
While all of the exciting breakthroughs and real-world trials of self-driving vehicles make for fascinating media stories and ignite our collective imagination, the question as to when this technology will be available on an industrial scale is still up in the air.
The aforementioned claims by Ford and other manufacturers about their plans for the release of self-driving vehicles in the next half-decade could be merely marketing rhetoric with little foundation in reality. But to dismiss these claims outright is equally unhelpful, as technologies including autonomous emergency braking systems, lane departure warnings and even parking sensors have long since predicted the arrival of autonomous cars.
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