AUTONOMOUS VEHICLES – FACT OR FANTASY?
Broadly the evolution of ADAS to full autonomy up to SAE level 2 has been implemented, although true level 2 applications are rare. However, everyone from politicians to venture capitalists think SAE level 5, where the user does nothing but get into- or out of a driverless vehicle. This assumes all the problems are solved and huge profits are made. The thesis – repeatedly debunked – is the UK vehicle population of circa 34 million units will shrink to an unspecified level as each unit becomes used more often throughout every day.
In truth autonomous vehicle point of entry to market will be for those who don’t like driving or think drive time should be work time. That’s a very specific market. Further, mass transit systems such as rail, tube or bus already address some of these issues, so autonomous vehicles must carve out additional opportunities. Investors in the autonomous vehicle sector seek a very, very large captive market. Once again, this thesis is debunked.
King Charles III read his first speech as monarch at the opening of parliament on 7th November 2023, declaring: “My Ministers will introduce new legal frameworks to support the safe commercial development of emerging industries, such as self-driving vehicles, introduce new competition rules for digital markets, and encourage innovation in technologies such as machine learning.”
The British Government seek to be first in the world to legally define who is responsible for an autonomous vehicle. On the 9th of November 2023 the following DfT Ministerial statement was issued:
“Every authorised self-driving vehicle will have a corresponding Authorised Self-Driving Entity – often the manufacturer – which will be responsible for the behaviour of the vehicle when self-driving. Companies will have ongoing obligations to keep their vehicles safe and ensure that they continue to drive in accordance with British laws.”
Gleefully some parts of the motor insurance sector jumped on this to declare the vehicle manufacturers will bear full responsibility – that’s to say, liability – for the autonomous vehicle at all times. There are three routes:
1. Vehicle manufacturers enter this business, where access to the vehicle is bought but every single other aspect comes under their own network – including repair and insurance. This would also extend to customer behaviour, by the way.
2. Third parties enter the market but given the liability may end up with the vehicle manufacturer anyway, costs to operate such vehicles would reduce potential profit margins.
3. Vehicle manufacturers stay out of the autonomous market. Why should they spend a fortune on systems when the primary benefactor is a government? As an example, led by Stellantis CEO Carlos Tavares, the EU Commission has already been severely challenged over Euro 7 (car and LCV)/Euro VII (HGV PSV) emission package. The manufacturers were ready to leave the EU Commission high and dry.
Cruise to oblivion
Design, development, and manufacturing of vehicles is not only an intricate process – it also provides lots of jobs across the EU27 and UK, in spite of frankly anti-vehicle policies from legislators. Further, it provides sectors such as collision repair with an income. This has been repeatedly put under threat by the UK and EU27 governments, which is why the Euro 7 push back was interesting – that was the first-time legislators saw if the manufacturers disengage, they have nothing.
At the very same time the UK Government played bar-room lawyer, General Motors battled with its autonomous vehicle division Cruise. The vehicles were a mix of converted Chevrolet Bolts and a yet-to-be homologated ‘Origin’ which had no driver controls at all. The 950 Bolts were deployed under special licence in selected states were withdrawn, and tests on the ‘Origin’ were stopped. Cruise suspended all operations on 8th October 2023.
Leading up to this, the NHTSA issued three recalls:
6th April 2023: 300 units recalled for inability to recognise articulated trucks in some circumstances. 31st August 2023: 80 units recalled for rare emergency brake glitch during left turns. 7th November 2023: all units recalled due to a ‘glitch’, moving to the side of the road after impact. On 2nd October 2023 a Cruise vehicle hit a pedestrian who had already been hit by another vehicle. The Cruise Bolt initially stopped and then drove for just over 6 metres with the pedestrian trapped on the underside in order to clear the road. The pedestrian died.
We now know Cruise had issues recognising small children, as a result of disclosures on 6th November 2023.
We saw the other end of the spectrum when 12 Cruise Bolts swarmed and then blocked a key road in San Francisco in July 2023 for two hours due to a software glitch. Similarly, Waymo were in the cross hairs for sending 50 vehicles a day down the same dead-end residential road in San Francisco.
The path to full autonomy
Bear in mind Cruise/Waymo systems are already more than 90% functional but getting that last 10% is going to be very expensive and take a long time. To date the only way an autonomous system has ever achieved close to 100% safety has been via dedicated route with no other traffic, running between a small number of destinations.
A tram or train does the same job, moving more people per journey, at a lower cost even when operated by humans.
Investors were quick to react to the State of California withdrawing the special operation licence from Cruise on 24th October, stating it would put GM behind Tesla. Sadly, this is not true, since Tesla don’t have anything like SAE level 5 capability yet, whereas Cruise and Waymo are much closer.
The engineering that is going on across all the autonomous vehicle community is astounding, but all of the systems are prototypes. Further, the systems rely on services outside of the vehicle to function, meaning roadside infrastructure. The Cruise affair comes as a huge battle rage between the system providers – Google, Microsoft, and Amazon – who each seek to capture the whole of the immense flow of data that is core to autonomous vehicle system operation. Similarly, system hardware providers ranging Qualcomm to nVidia are excited by the same prospect. Everyone thinks they are going to get the whole pie.
Who cares about the manufacturers?
No manufacturer is going to build a product just for the UK. The minimum would be EU27 plus UK, EU27 plus China, and so on through to the super rare global vehicle. Spreading the investment and maximising return is what this is all about – so the proposed UK law barely makes sense unless it is in line with or adopted by the EU27.
There is a significant gap between the capability of autonomous systems that exist today, and the idea that it will be in public use by 2030. If the target date were real the law would be in place across the EU27 as well as the UK, harmonised with the USA – and the systems would be fully developed right now.
This situation does not exist. Further, if vehicle manufacturers have to take all liability who needs insurance companies?
Where are the repairers in this?
As with autonomous system development, the law is also ‘in development’. The proposed law is spangly high fashion which is sure to attract the attention of other governments since all they need to do is cut and paste…
You can see many issues arising from this, not least of which could be vehicle manufacturers taking over the whole system of vehicle life from cradle to grave – if they have to carry the ‘liability’ can. Should this take place there are two choices for repairers.
1. Ignore autonomy and repair the non-autonomous vehicles which are likely to be outnumbered for many decades to come.
2. Alternatively, the repairer can align with a manufacturer, so negotiating the best terms earlier rather than waiting.
For collision repairers, autonomy is now an area to observe closely, but do not jump in until the systems are more robust, and the Government policy is 100% clearer than today.
There is a wider point
If a vehicle manufacturer is forced to take over their product throughout its entire life cycle, then the only people who will be ‘allowed’ to work on them will have to be approved by the vehicle manufacturer. Such systems have existed before, notably in Germany, where there was enough work for all, and customers were happy to pay a premium. As markets became more open and manufacturers found it difficult to operate in such a competitive environment, especially when a vehicle is out of manufacturer warranty cover, they withdrew.
Legislation is always about considering the obvious effect as well as the unintended consequences. Perhaps celebration of vehicle manufacturers carrying full liability for their products for the full lifetime is a bit premature – for example, who needs insurers?
Story by: Andrew Marsh