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Autonomous vehicles are the future

Graphic of a green car flying in the air

Autonomous vehicles will change all mobility sectors. The reasons for removing the driver, helmsman or pilot are diverse, and range from increased safety to greater efficiency and less environmental impact.

* Editor’s note: This article, from The Quintessence, originally appeared online in Future Markets Magazine.

Self-driving cars, unmanned aircraft or driverless tractors—autonomous vehicles stopped being merely an idea on paper a long time ago. Now they are becoming increasingly “active” among us, at least in the form of prototypes: machines that act autonomously, independent of human commands, and make the “right” decisions, at least in everyday situations. New sensor technologies, networking possibilities and self-learning algorithms make it possible for the new vehicles to react quickly and sensitively to their environment, taking a wide range of data into consideration.

Driving without human control

According to the definition of the German Specialist Forum for Autonomous Systems, an autonomous vehicle exists when a system can reach a specified destination independently, irrespective of the driving or environmental situation in question. In line with this definition, the ability to learn is not a prerequisite, but rather a possible characteristic of autonomous vehicles. With regard to automated road traffic, this objective is achieved if, for example, the on-board system takes over the task of driving “completely, on all road types and in all speed zones and environmental conditions.” This means that driverless cars make decisions and take on tasks in unstructured environments, without a human driver exercising a control function. According to Cisco Systems, 46.8 % of people worldwide would allow their children to be driven by an autonomous car.

New business models are opening up

At present, vehicles with these capabilities are not only being developed for the roads, but also for deep-sea journeys and flights in the upper atmosphere. They do not just replace the driver, helmsman or pilot, but have the potential to create completely new business models worth many billions: autonomous drones that can remain in the air for months and bring the Internet to 4.5 billion people who were previously offline are just one example of this. Autonomous vehicles will probably lead to the most significant revolution in road travel. Automotive manufacturers can establish innovative business models based on this new technology, for example with entertainment offers or individually customized servicing packages that pilot the vehicle into the manufacturer’s own workshops.

At the same time, companies must adapt to shorter development cycles and new competitors from the IT and high-tech sector. Above all, however, there will be significantly less revenue from car sales: analysts from Barclays investment bank are working on the assumption that, thanks to car sharing and autonomous taxis, sales of private cars will fall by up to 50 per cent in the next 25 years. The companies still have time to prepare for these upheavals, as completely autonomous vehicles are not expected in complex road traffic until around 2030. However, in controllable environments such as agriculture or mining, self-driving vehicles are already in use today.

Autonomous vehicles do not just replace the driver, helmsman or pilot, but have the potential to create completely new business models worth many billion.

Diverse benefits

There are a wide range of arguments in favor of autonomous vehicles, with improved use of infrastructure and a reduction in the number of accidents being the key points of focus for road transport. After all, 90 per cent of all road accidents are due to driver error. The same is true of air travel – electronic systems remain alert 24 hours a day and the current microprocessors can react approximately 1,000 times faster than humans in dangerous situations. However, the staffing costs for pilots are also a reason for using autonomous aircraft. The same argument can be made in the construction sector for driverless vehicles – after all, autonomous excavators and HGVs will save up to 90 per cent of labor costs. At the same time, the machines can remain in use 24 hours a day, without the breaks that a person would require. Within the logistics sector, fully automated HGVs could therefore enable better usage of fleet capacity and make supply chains more efficient in the medium term. A shortage of workers is a further reason for fully automated vehicles: this is true of both HGV drivers and for maritime shipping. At the same time, autonomous vehicles also reduce the impact on the environment: with construction and agricultural machines, it should be possible to reduce the amount of CO2 produced by up to 60 per cent. What is more, completely new methods of farming can be implemented in the agricultural sector, making it possible to significantly reduce the use of spray agents and protect the soil.

Who is responsible?

However, there are still a number of ethical, legal and social questions that must be answered before we can make use of these advantages: after all, who is responsible for the “actions” of autonomous vehicles if users themselves are not involved in the vehicles’ decisions, or only marginally involved? And in the event of conflict, what criteria should machines use to “decide”, and who will determine said criteria? Nevertheless, the experts are certain that these questions will be clarified and that autonomous vehicles will trigger a revolution in mobility in the near future.

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