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Proper hard!

From the hype of a few years ago we are now seeing a growing realisation that when it comes to rolling out self-driving vehicles, it's going to be a lot more complex and challenging than previously thought.

Just a few years ago experts were talking about self-driving cars appearing on our road systems in 2021, with robotaxis forecast to be in use in cities around the world.

As we move into 2021 we're yet to see significant numbers on our roads and while the promises associated with the driverless revolution, whether that’s making driving safer or delivering more environmentally friendly forms of transportation, still ring true, it seems that engineers working to deliver this revolution are beginning to realise and accept that it will be a lot harder to deliver.

Uber, for example, one of the biggest players in this space and a supposed key beneficiary of the technology, has abandoned plans for self-driving taxis, selling off its autonomous division.

So is it fair to say that the challenges and complexity associated with delivering autonomous vehicles are proving significantly more challenging than was previously thought?

Proponents argue that autonomous vehicles are safer and when human error accounts for most accidents they certainly have a point.

The technology itself works, but the big issue is whether it is able to work accurately and reliably every time. You only need something to go wrong once for an accident to occur and for trust in the technology to be undermined.

Autonomous vehicles will appear on our roads but in a more limited fashion – perhaps on roads with clearly marked lanes. But as for cities, it appears to be unlikely, particular when it comes to navigating the complex narrow streets that tend to make up European cities.

However, turn to the US and China and advances may be more significant. In China new cities are being built which take into account the needs of autonomous vehicles and roads with in-built sensors are now being rolled out.

But it’s not just the technology. There needs to be significant changes when it comes to standards and regulations and there are certainly real problems when it comes to issues around things like social acceptance, cybersecurity and cost.

Despite these ‘setbacks’ there has been progress on many fronts and while there will be errors and mistakes and the need to build up public trust, especially when those mistakes are made public, it appears that autonomous vehicles will start to appear but perhaps not in the way we expected.

A growing number of experts doubt that we will see fully autonomous vehicles and fleets of robotaxis on our streets, rather this technology will be deployed more selectively, with the focus being more on ‘remote assistance’ than total autonomy.

The opportunities in the automotive space are immense but so to are the challenges in transforming this industry.

Autonomous vehicles will appear but as with so many technologies the promises made are proving a lot harder to deliver in practice.

Neil Tyler

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