Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Driverless cars for the next decades in 4 steps

“Roma die uno non aedificata est” (Rome wasn’t built in 1 day)

Driverless cars will become reality during the following years or decades.

We can classify this evolution in 4 steps:

  • step 0: today’s self parking feature and Google cars
  • step 1: partially autonomous driverless cars
  • step 2: everyone can operate a driverless car
  • step 3: shared driverless cars

step 0: today’s self parking feature and Google cars

Technically cars can sometimes self drive themselves in a static environment for a reasonable price: When parking themselves. This is legally allowed worldwide because the driver still controls the speed at which self parking is occurring.

Technically cars can self drive themselves in all dynamic environments for an unreasonable price. This is legally allowed in some US states but a licenced driver needs to be present at the driving seat.

step 1: partially autonomous driverless cars

This step can be divided in several sub steps which are different only in the degree of involvement drivers will be required to have or freedom that they will have. It is the last step where technical issues are involved.

Next year’s Mercedes-Benz: having hands off the wheel for 10 seconds

Technically cars can self drive themselves in some dynamic environment for an “affordable?” price: on highways during stable conditions and in traffic jams. This may be legally allowed worldwide because the driver is allowed to not touch the steering wheel for 10 seconds maximum.

Why did Mercedes-Benz chose that the maximum allowed was 10 seconds and not 5 or 20 seconds? This question is triggering the next sub step.

1 minute (and more) free on highways and traffic jams

“How long end drivers are allowed (technically and legally) not to pay attention to road” will be the most interesting thing to watch for the next 5 to 10 years and especially:
  1. environmental conditions allowing it.
  2. the price of the technical features needed.
  3. reliability.

Driverless cars are autonomous during the entire highway part of a trip

End to end autonomous but car has both manual and self driving mode but a licenced driver is still required to be at the helm.

In the 2 last steps, no technical improvement happens anymore. These steps are about business and environmental changes.

step 2: everyone can operate a driverless car

This step will be reached when it will be not required to have a driving licence to operate a car. All technical issues have been solved.

As in previous step, maybe unlicenced driving will be allowed on some specific, secured, well known trips or when some specific conditions are met (i.e. at specific hours when overall traffic is light).

If driverless cars can be completely autonomous on all or most trips and operated by unlicensed driver, the several features of today’s cars are not needed anymore such as steering wheel, pedals, mirrors... Maybe the driving console can also disappear and the only device you need is a smartphone to enter the trip and poll the time of arrival.

step 3: shared driverless cars

Compared to previous steps, there is no technical improvement any more. Only cab companies are now allowed to own cars and have them maintained.

Shared usage step:

  • has little legal implication, except the driver becomes a mere passenger with no responsability
  • transforms the way car manufacturers, insurers, auto repairs and cab companies work and interact with each others.
  • transforms the way cities are organized

Cars are now as safe as trains. Liability has shifted from the driver to the car manufacturer. Auto insurance clients are no more end users but rather auto manufacturers, auto repair shops or and cab companies.
Parked cars no longer clutter streets and supermarkets parking lots.

You order the car you need for shopping at the local supermarket or for several hours vacation trip with the whole family.

To go shopping:
  1. A car that you ordered picks you at home and drives you to the supermarket.
  2. At the supermarket, you leave the car and it is then used by someone else or parked away.
  3. When you have finished your shopping, the same car or another ones comes picking you at supermarket exit and drives you home.

Everyone becomes James Bond in "Tomorrow never dies" where he drives a car with a remote.


  1. Not sure this will be the short/middle term evolution. In this scenario, the hedonistic part of driving is totally missing. A lot of people see driving (under some circumstances) as a pleasure, and it is centuries that this concept goes on (with horses or with coaches before). Will we be willing to lose this pleasure? I don’t think so. Neither I am able to see in the next decades the possibility that some politicians create laws to “deny” the possibility to drive.

  2. Thanks for your comment.

    I commented on "the hedonistic part of driving" as you call it in an other blog post: "The revenge of faster horses"

  3. I think the gap from 1 to 2 will be large enough to qualify a 1.5 step. I think there will be quite a while in the US where we are not allowed to have empty cars running around, and especially cars with just children in them.

    I hope to be wrong of course.

  4. I certainly hope that step 4, where only cab companies can own cars, never happens.

    For one thing you're completely ignoring the kind of person who employs his vehicle in his job. It would be rather horrible to have to completely unload a handyman's truck between jobs, or someone who drives to people's homes and installs satellite dishes.

    Also, there is a price point where owning a vehicle becomes cheaper than renting by the trip, based on how much you use it. The more you use it, the cheaper per trip it becomes. If you only use it to get to work and then home, certainly it would be cheaper to rent by the trip.

    I would definitely love to use such a rental to go downtown and back.

    But you're also missing many many ways in which self driving cars will change the economy and every day life. Just imagine the variety of delivery vehicles that will be invented. Everything will be deliverable. For those who continue to own their own vehicles, they will be able to be sent for repairs or refueling.

    1. I agree that professional vehicles won't be rented by the trip, but will be owned by the company, like they are today.

      I will write in a later post about how the end user could daily rent a car for his commuting trip and another one to go on vacation with its family.

    2. I'll add my remarks about step 4 (shared cars) here.

      How do you keep these cars clean? Suppose someone is sick in the car (after a pubcrawl :-) )?

      What about vandalism? Bored teenagers who feel the need to leave their mark...

      If you can afford it then having your own car is a nice thing to have because it's both a status symbol (if you care about that) and its also much more convenient because you can leave your stuff in your car.
      There is also the factor of customising you car: colour, sort of seat covers, smell of the air freshener, a supply of your favourite snacks, etc ...