Taxis may lead autonomous car wave in 5 years

Neil Winton
Special to The Detroit News

The biggest barrier to the adoption of self-driving cars will be legal issues, not the technology itself, according to a Delphi Automotive executive.

Jeff Owens, Chief Technology Officer and Executive Vice President at the Gillingham, U.K.-based supplier, expects the first cars controlled totally by computer technology on city streets within five years, but for the general public it could be 10 years away.

“The first autonomous vehicles will probably be taxis,” Owens said in a telephone interview from his Detroit office. “That could happen in five years because the regulatory environment is a little easier. It takes between 5 and 8 years to significantly change national traffic regulation, but in cities or municipalities this change can take weeks, not years; the legal framework is much simpler if a vehicle is for hire rather than owner driven.

“There are still liability issues but easier and narrower ones. For companies you can amortize the expense over two or three years rather than the 10 to 12 years for consumers,” Owens said.

Automotive manufacturers have made great strides in automating almost all functions, but it's the final 5 percent which might be the hardest hurdle to jump. A self-driving car would be able to handle all kinds of physical decisions for braking, steering and avoiding other cars, but how would it handle a situation where a legal decision was required?

For example, a vehicle being blocked by a cyclist in front and a double line in the middle prohibiting passing would require a value judgment to break the law.

Owens doesn't think this problem is insurmountable and could be solved with powerful algorithms which would be able to peer ahead to make sure the coast is clear.

“At the end of the day, technology won’t be the inhibitor, it will be the legal framework,” he said.

Owens said vehicle connectivity which allows cars to talk to each other and share data is building up ahead of full autonomy to improve safety and avoid accidents.

“Vehicle control algorithms will be ready to take on all kinds of problems including that cyclist example. Already cars like the Mercedes S class (its top-of-the-range sedan) and the Audi Q7 (SUV, and the Tesla Model S) allow you to set the auto pilot on the highway which allows hands-off driving. The driver will still be keeping watch, but it helps for a relaxed experience,” Owens said.

“Connectivity used to be just entertainment, now it’s vehicle-to-everything -- literally really connected to everything like the infrastructure and providing cloud-based information that will help a safe journey,” he said.

Owens said Gothenburg in Sweden or Singapore in Asia might well be the first cities to try to ease heavy traffic density as an excuse to open up driverless car fleets.

But Owens does concede that all the hopes for autonomous cars and other new technology developments depend on one big imponderable.

“The biggest question is, how much will consumers pay not to have a driver?” he said.

Owens doesn’t see a very rapid adoption of electric cars, and said that by 2025 about 95 percent of cars will still be powered by internal combustion engines, with one big difference.

“One out of every 10 cars sold globally in 2025 will be 48-volt, mild hybrid. That’s 11 million units a year – three times the volume of pickup trucks sold annually,” he said. Delphi recently demonstrated its 48-volt mild hybrid technology, which would increase fuel economy by about 15 percent as well as increase low-end torque. It estimates it would cost about $1,000-$2,000 per vehicle.

The first Delphi car powered by its 48-volt technology could be in production by the end of 2017.

Owens had more good news for the industry with the opinion that millennials -- said to be so disinterested in owning cars that the automobile’s future was threatened -- were after all going to be buyers.

“Millennials will be buying cars, but they will be delaying until later in life, and when they do buy, they will want something different. They are more interested in safety and the ability to experience their digital life-style with less emphasis on power. That’s good news. We were worried they were never going to buy cars.”