Automated vehicles - auto industry takes the lead

This recently released report from Navigant made me think hard about the impact of who is leading advances in automation.

The report states that the big auto manufacturers are now moving from their research phases into production engineering for launch in a couple of years. An example of this is that GM has voluntarily sent a safety report to the US Federal government along with a request for permission to start real-world testing of vehicles without steering wheels from next year (2019).

The leaders chart in Navigant's report also shows is that all the hyperbole about Apple, Uber and Tesla is misplaced. Auto manufacturers are now far ahead having not only the financial capacity to run rapid development, but also the market knowledge to shape its introduction to the public.

AV Industry Leaders Chart - Navigant Research

Navigant 2017 AV leaders.jpeg

On the plus side, the advances in AV technology are clearly moving faster than many forecasted. This is great news for the development of machine learning, road safety and vehicle efficiency. On the negative, we have to look at the nature and motivations of the industry leaders. Not that tech companies are beneficent by nature, but the auto industry has grown on retailing and so will naturally favour the business they know by marketing and pricing strategies to promote sales of private AVs. 

Making AVs affordable may mean that GM, Ford, Volkswagen etc. accept loosing billions early on until a few gain market dominance through either technological break-throughs (think AVs in snow) or, less positively, through effective lobbying to reduce regulation. These losses will be an acceptable business strategy and there is no shortage of speculative investors as we see from stories about dockless bike sharing. 

If new AVs fall within reach of the average car-owning household the pessimist in me sees a series of knock-on effects.

  1. Private vehicle owners don't seem keen on peer-to-peer car sharing, so one efficiency option is doubtful.
  2. We know that vehicle ownership induces more vehicle travel and dramatically less use of alternatives.
  3. With the ownership market unchanged,  'Robo-Ubers' will be forced to fight harder for the transit dollar to turn a so-far elusive profit.
  4. Public transit services will have to reduce under less revenue and creeping privatization.
  5. Low-income people and people priced out of living downtown, will become more isolated.
  6. With more vehicle mobility and a downward spiral of public funding, it will be easy to restrict access and rights to walk and cycle. 

This does not produce the cities we are planning for. 

But the optimist in me can't shake the idea that we still have the chance to put the incredible advances in technology to positive use. To achieve this we need government to work with industries to:

  • Make brave political decisions to regulate services and instigate price controls to meet publicly debated environmental, social and economic commitments.
  • Describe and accept a new reality of sustainable auto-based mobility with an increasing role for private companies in diverse public networks.
  • Actively protect our downtowns and neighbourhoods as spaces for people.
  • Create a social safety net for personal mobility.

We can't stop private investment literally driving the future of mobility, but we can steer it before it goes on auto pilot.