By the looks of things, driverless cars will be ready to take to U.S. roads by 2020. In just four years, it might be possible to enter a car, input a destination and relax — leaving the driving to your fully autonomous car.
Although the near-term inception date for autonomous vehicles is open to debate (Elon Musk says 2018, Ford’s Raj Najir claims 2020, while Continental’s Elmar Degenhart has forecast 2023 or later), the facts are clear that it will happen.
Experts are still trying to determine how to make the technology work in a variety of driving conditions and under various threat scenarios, while overcoming regulatory obstacles and handling likely legal challenges. Other than the cost of bringing the technology to market, there is a matter of winning over hesitant consumers, and that’s not an easy task.
Forecasting auto trends become even more complicated when done on a global scale. In the U.S., the regulatory environment means more than 50 states and territories have a say. In China, central planners decide when and how it is done. As for the rest of the world, the process falls somewhere between the two extremes.
IHS Automotive offered a bullish forecast this week, pinning the number of autonomous vehicles sold at 21 million globally by 2035. This is a new forecast, one where IHS believes the U.S. will lead the world in initial deployment with Japan quickly joining in ahead of the Tokyo Summer Olympics in 2020.
“Global sales of autonomous vehicles will reach nearly 600,000 units in 2025,” said Egil Juliussen, Ph.D. and director of research at IHS Automotive. “Our new forecast reflects a 43 percent compound annual growth rate between 2025 and 2035 – a decade of substantial growth, as driverless and self-driving cars alike are more widely adopted in all key global automotive markets.”
IHS says a slew of participants are poised to move vehicle autonomy forward, including car manufacturers, suppliers, technology companies, research and development centers and car and ride-sharing companies.
Cooperation between various stakeholders is key to vehicle autonomy. Internet giant Google and Fiat Chrysler plan to put 100 autonomous Chrysler Pacifica hybrid minivans on the road by year’s end. Uber successfully lobbied the state of Arizona to permit the world’s first driverless taxis on state roads and Volkswagen invested in Gett, Uber’s chief European rival. In China, Apple invested $1 billion in Didi Chuxing, yet another ride-sharing company.
IHS’ global forecast is based on regional deployment as follows:
1. You go first. The U.S. will kick things off by deploying several thousand driverless cars in 2020. As consumer acceptance grows, 4.5 million autonomous cars will be sold in the states in 2035.
2. Arrive late, and then lead the market. China won’t see autonomous vehicles early on, but the market is expected to adjust quickly due to consumer demand. As a result, China should top 5.7 million autonomous cars sold by 2035. An additional upside may be realized as regulators determine how safety and environmental concerns may be achieved through autonomous mobility.
3. Meanwhile, Europe will find its place. On the European front, IHS forecasts 4.2 million autonomous vehicles — 3 million in the west, 1.2 million in the east. Premium manufacturers will initiate deployment.
4. Best of the rest. IHS sees Japan and South Korea combining for 1.2 million autonomous vehicles by 2035. Africa and the Middle East will add another 1 million vehicles. Other markets will sustain the balance of driverless vehicle sales.
Overcoming Consumer Apprehension
Set aside regulatory, technology, insurance and legal concerns, and self-driving vehicle adoption ultimately comes down to one significant concern: consumer interest.
The University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI) is keeping tabs on consumer interest in self-driving vehicles by regularly surveying licensed drivers in the U.S.
Researchers have found public opinion has remained near constant, despite increased media coverage, as only 15.5 percent of drivers want full vehicle autonomy. Meanwhile, 38.7 percent would welcome partial self-driving capabilities. The remaining 45.8 percent are against any form of vehicle autonomy, preferring to maintain full control of their vehicles at all times.
The survey also found 95 percent of the 618 individuals surveyed want a steering wheel and brake and gas pedals present so they can take control of completely self-driving cars when necessary. As for partial self-driving vehicles, 59 percent of respondents expressed a preference for a coalescence of sensory warnings — sound, vibration and visual — to alert drivers when it is essential to gain control of the vehicle.
Self-driving vehicle proponents may struggle to win over the majority of consumers, but they probably won’t need to. Instead, to reach the one-quarter autonomous vehicle U.S. purchase forecast, they only need to win over a portion of the middle group that already favors partial self-driving.
Calming security fears, while enabling drivers to assume control as needed, may be what it takes to tip the balance toward full autonomy.