Self-Driving Cars – Coming sooner than we think?

The future of the car, taking on latest developments in electric vehicles and self-driving technology was the topic of the rather immodestly titled “Great Debate” at the University of Reading held last month. As the host candidly admitted, the organising committee was undecided as to whether to discuss electric vehicles or self-driving cars, and so fudged it. In the end, much of the discussion focused on the impact of autonomous cars.

Are electric cars really ready for mass-market?

The first couple of speakers focused on the challenges facing electric vehicles before they truly become mass market. Currently representing 1.6% of the UK market, and on-track to register 200,000-300,000 sales, electric vehicles are still not truly a mainstream proposition.

Global Sales of EVs – source:

Chemistry provides the main hurdle for electric cars, with batteries representing a far more inefficient storage medium than petrol or diesel. For a comparison, the Tesla S battery has an energy density of 140 Watt-hour / kg compared to 12,200 Watt-hour / kg for petrol (gasoline). Having said that, Tesla is leading the charge in producing truly practical electric vehicles, with its latest 100D model offering a 355 mile range. Impressive as this sounds, it is still around a third of an equivalent diesel-powered BMW 520d, which can do close to 1000 miles on a single tank.

Will they break the electricity grid?

Slowly, the range issue will be overcome due to other benefits offered by electric vehicles. Just as mobile phone users ditched their trusty Nokia mobile phones with a seven day battery life for an iPhone that could barely last a day, electric cars will likely hit a similar tipping point. This will also be aided by the backlash against ‘dirty’ diesel engines, and the large number of cities looking to limit the number of diesel cars on its roads.

The inevitable rise in the number of electric vehicles, then raises another question – will the electricity grid cope? As the numbers of plug-in chargers increases, this will have a potentially disruptive impact on the the electricity transmission and distribution systems. This is particularly true if most charging occurs on returning home in the evening, which in the UK also coincides with the period of maximum use. Avoiding further strain on the grid will require smart charging solutions to allow vehicles to charge in period of low demand, and indeed potentially provide energy back to the grid or home when demand is highest.

Other solutions include charging vehicles while away from home, most intriguingly while being driven. Concepts were shown of motorways with charging lanes, though little details were given of how much this would cost, and I cannot imagine that this would be very cheap. In the meantime, some cities, including London are experimenting with placing inductive charging bays in the bus termini, allowing for opportunistic and regular battery top-ups.

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Self-driving Cars – Where it gets interesting

The second half of the debate focused on self-driving cars, a topic that the audience clearly found a lot more exciting. This is a space where there are a lot of high-visibility activity and competition, principally between Silicon Valley upstarts and the established automakers. Recently, Tesla’s market capitalisation exceeded that of Ford, even through last year it sold around 76,000 vehicles compared to Ford’s 6 million. This battle is also being fought in the law courts, with Waymo, Google’s self-driving car venture suing Uber for stealing its intellectual property.

It’s all about the numbers

The State of California requires all companies testing autonomous vehicles to register the number of miles driven in testing, and the number of times the automatic driver had to be disengaged. Waymo leads the pack, both in terms of miles driven (635,868) as well as in the largest number of miles per disengagement (one every 1244 miles). This data is imperfect, as the type of driving and traffic scenarios differs significantly by manufacturer, and is limited to data collected in California. Nevertheless, it clearly shows progress being made towards a future of fully autonomous cars.

The Numbers Don’t Lie: Self-Driving Cars Are Getting Good, Fast

It’s report card time for the automakers and Silicon Valley denizens studying the tricky problem of making cars drive themselves, and everyone is passing. The California DMV just released its annual slate of “disengagement reports,” documents provided by the 11 companies that received state permits to test autonomous vehicles by the end of 2015.

Heading towards full automation

While machine learning and AI are driving dramatic improvements mentioned above, the debate made clear that the biggest hurdles lie with the human driving element. It may come as a surprise that the auto industry has determined that fully automated cars pose a simpler engineering problem than a partial autopilot. The industry uses a standard classification of the levels of driving automation in a car from Level 0 (no driving aids) to Level 5 (full automation). Most modern cars come with Level 1 tools such as lane assist, automatic braking and adaptive cruise control. Level 2 and 3 systems as offered in the Tesla’s Autopilot system can do most of the driving, but require human intervention at any time.

Levels of autonomy in self-driving cars. Original source SAE International
Levels of autonomy in cars. Original source SAE International


However, other than Tesla, most auto manufacturers are shying away from automation that puts the car in control but requires a driver to take over in an emergency. The engineering and human interface challenges that need to be overcome for a driver to safely retake control after playing Candy Crush on his phone are likely to be simply insurmountable.

For this reason, most car companies, including BMW, Ford, and Mercedes have opted to jump straight to Level 5 self-driving cars, as is Waymo. These cars will be fully autonomous and will not need a driver. This will open up doors to a whole range of business models and scenarios which will genuinely transform personal mobility. Taxis, hire cars, car pools, commuting, the school run, deliveries, logistics, road maintenance, roadside assistance. No business that currently uses cars, vans or heavy vehicles will be immune to the upcoming disruption. Watch this space.

Next Post – The Impact of Disruption

This post, and indeed the Great Debate only really just skimmed the more fundamental impact of autonomous vehicles. Where it becomes really exciting is in the transformative effect it will have on how we go about our daily lives, how our cities are organised, and on the fate of many of the world’s best known companies. When I get a bit more time, I will put pen to paper on this topic.

Further reading

  2. Urban Foresight Report on “Energy Systems and Electric Vehicles” –

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