Hands driving a steering wheel

The Road Ahead: Racing to Autonomous Cars

2 Feb 2016 by Susie Steckner

0 to 60. That’s the speed of innovation in the automotive industry today.

From ride sharing to smartphone connectivity to electric cars, getting from Point A to Point B is never going to be the same.

Leading the pack in all this disruption? Autonomous cars. Though fully self-driving cars are many years — and many hurdles — away, predictions are causing glacial shifts in how we move. Ultimately, they will upend key segments of our economy.

 “Connected cars are the leading edge of disruptive technology … Over the next five years, the connected car could disrupt the entire automotive ecosystem. The industry will undergo fundamental change as semi-autonomous driving emerges, followed by an eventual shift to full autonomous driving,” according to the Connected Car Study 2015.

Gaining traction

As the intersection between tech and cars grows, the autonomous vehicle — which drives itself in autopilot mode using in-vehicle technologies and sensors — is gaining traction.

The innovation grabbed a top spot on Gartner’s 2015 Hype Cycle of Emerging Technologies report, which tracks technologies and trends that are likely to have a significant impact.  

“While autonomous vehicles are still embryonic, this movement still represents a significant advancement, with all major automotive companies putting autonomous vehicles on their near-term roadmaps,” according to Gartner.

At the same time, consumers may be ready to put self-driving cars on their own roadmaps. In a recent report, Revolution in the Driver's Seat, 55% of respondents said they would consider buying a partially autonomous car; 44% said they would consider a fully autonomous car.

Though some respondents have concerns — reliability, cybersecurity and potential for accidents — the level of enthusiasm is higher than it was for electric vehicles as they were emerging, according to the report.

Happening now

Semi-autonomous and autonomous cars are hitting the road in greater numbers as companies log test mile after test mile or seek to showcase technologies for future consumers. A sample of efforts include:

Google began testing self-driving cars in 2009 and has since logged more than 1 million miles around California and Texas. The cars — 23 Lexus RX 450h SUVs and 30 prototypes — average between 10,000-15,000 autonomous miles per week on public streets.

BMW showed off its Remote Valet Parking Assistant at CES 2015, using a modified version of its BMWi3 electric car. The car, controlled with an app, can autonomously park itself and then return for pick up. It also features a collision avoidance system.

Volkswagen’s autonomous 2010 Passat Variant made a 1,500-mile trek in 2015 from the U.S. border at Nogalas to Mexico City with University of Nevada professor Raul Rojas behind the wheel hands free. It is the longest-ever autonomous drive in Mexico.

Ford announced this year that it is tripling its fleet of Fusion Hybrid autonomous research vehicles, making the company’s fully self-driving fleet the largest of any automaker. About 30 vehicles are being tested on roads in California, Arizona and Michigan.

Tesla, the all-electric automaker, expects to be rolling out a fully autonomous car in two years, according to CEO Elon Musk.

Shift to self-driving

What’s on the horizon? According to the Connected Car Study:

  • A shift to autonomous driving will begin in earnest before 2020.
  • By 2025, 20% of new cars sold are likely to have significant autonomous capabilities.
  • Piloted driving will start in urban areas.
  • Cars will not start off as fully autonomous. They will offer a range of driver-assistance features — from the parking assistance systems available today, to semi-autonomous systems that allow drivers to take control at any time.
  • Beyond the consumer market, autonomous vehicle technology will also transform the transportation of goods and the use of heavy machinery.
  • The advances in self-driving cars will be steady. By 2030, consumers may see fully autonomous vehicles without steering wheels.

“Even the slower plausible scenarios show 15 to 20% penetration by autonomous vehicles in 2030, only 15 years from now,” the study says.

Connected life

Ultimately, autonomous cars will have wide-ranging purposes, according to the Connected Car study.  

They may travel specific routes, say through an airport to carry passengers from one terminal to another. They may have a singular purpose, such as providing door-to-door service for people on holiday.

Commuters may ditch individual cars or the bus in favor of self-driving cars with coordinated routes that allow people to conveniently share rides. In fact, the report says, autonomous cars will likely be woven into the fabric of major cities to complement walking, bicycling and public transportation.

As the connected car movement continues to grow, it’s clear that consumers want to sync up their experiences on the road and their lifestyles.

“Today’s cars do not meet today’s needs,” according to Faraday Future. “Technological innovations, energy constraints, urban crowding and demanding lifestyles have each contributed to a fundamental shift in our relationships with our cars.”