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The year in review: 2016 in automated driving

2016 - the year automated driving grew up. (Photo: Fotolia)

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Angelo Rychel
Angelo Rychel
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The year’s end – time for a moment of reflection. Let’s take a look back at what 2016 had in store for driverless cars – including trailblazing innovations, heated debates and a tragic accident.

“One thing is certain: automated driving is starting to enter the next phase - it is starting to grow up,” we concluded in an article published in August. Yet this may in fact be the right way to describe the entire past year. In many ways, 2016 has been a pivotal year for driverless vehicles. A year that saw the industry firmly commit itself to self-driving mobility. A year which sparked a real political debate on the challenges of car automation. And, sadly, a year where (semi-)autonomous driving claimed its first victim. We bring you the most important driverless car developments of 2016.

Legislation: Global politics push for common standards

The year began with a bang in January, when the Obama administration unveiled a 4 billion U.S. dollar plan “to accelerate the development and adoption of safe vehicle automation.” In the global race towards driverless mobility, the U.S. was clearly going for pole position. Another milestone came in February, as U.S. authorities declared they would legally treat Google’s self-driving cars like human drivers. In fall, Transport Secretary Anthony Foxx released his highly-anticipated regulatory framework: to the delight of most industry players, it focused on voluntary guidelines rather than formal laws. Now, as the year comes to a close, the election of Donald Trump has sparked debates as to whether his administration will have an even more deregulatory approach on self-driving vehicles.

Applause for Obama: The car industry welcomed his plan. (Photo: White House)

Could America’s bold approach to regulation be leaving Europe in their wake? To some observers, that seems to be the case. However, European politicians were by no means inactive this year. In April, all 28 EU member states signed the Amsterdam Declaration that called for a framework for connected and automated vehicles. Plus, 73 countries amended the Vienna Convention on road traffic – paving the way for more vehicle automation.

Commercial vehicles: Trailblazers of driverless mobility?

Many experts believe that a pioneering role for driverless mobility could fall to autonomous trucking. Because commercial fleets – as opposed to the private sector –have a clear business case in favor of automated driving. Several events in 2016 indicated that this expectation might be right. In April, a dozen autonomous trucks from six manufacturers successfully completed a trip across Europe as part of the European Truck Platooning Challenge. The vehicles followed the principle of platooning – forming an automated convoy with only short gaps between them.

A convoy of autonomous trucks rumbled across several EU countries. (Photo: Volvo)

Platooning was also one of the defining topics at this year’s IAA Commercial Vehicles in Hanover. All big suppliers and OEMs offered systems that are principally ready for the market. While platooning promises huge benefits like reducing emissions and fuel consumption, opinions continue to vary on a delicate question that surrounds it – will automated trucking be a job killer?

Silicon Valley: Google and Apple under pressure

Ever since Google started their self-driving car project in 2009, the company has been seen as a trailblazer for autonomous driving. At the end of 2016, after a year of setbacks, that reputation now seems somewhat tarnished. In January, engineer mastermind Anthony Levandowski left Google to launch his autonomous trucking start-up Otto – only to be acquired by Uber in August. The ride-hailing service is shaping up to be one of Google’s fiercest competitors. As if that wasn’t enough, CTO Chris Urmson also exited the project – reportedly unhappy with the strategic direction it was taking. Urmson is now founding his own driverless car start-up. Nonetheless, Google still believes in the commercial viability of their vehicles, having just set up their self-driving car unit as a separate entity called “Waymo”.

Google's self-driving car project seemed to struggle in 2016. (Photo: Google)

Meanwhile, Apple also had a challenging year with its secretive driverless car project “Titan”. Long feared by the entire branch, in August reports emerged that there would not be an Apple car – the company has allegedly shifted its focus to developing self-driving software instead. In October, several hundred engineers were let go. Signs of trouble? At least indications that, after all, one frequent claim by the automotive industry might be correct: that building cars is not the core competence of Silicon Valley giants.

Industry: OEMs get serious with concrete release dates

2016 was the year when driverless vehicles were made available to the public for the first time – at least in trial mode. Leading the pack was MIT start-up Nutonomy, whose self-driving vehicles offered lifts to customers in Singapore. Shortly after, Uber started deploying self-driving fleets in Pittsburgh and San Francisco.

However, the picture looks a little different when it comes to the market readiness of autonomous cars. While partial automation is already available in several car models, it is still not clear when fully automated vehicles (level 5 automation) will hit the market. In 2015, former Google CTO Chris Urmson said he wanted autonomous vehicles market ready by the end of the decade. Back then, most traditional OEMs were still rather reluctant to name a concrete target year.

Opel CEO Karl-Thomas Neumann shared his driverless car vision with 2025AD. (Photo: Opel)

However, in the past year, many OEMs have publicly narrowed down their goals to the beginning of the next decade: BMW will partner with Intel and Mobileye to develop a fully autonomous vehicle by 2021. By the same year, Ford plans to deploy thousands of vehicles for driverless fleets. And in interviews with 2025AD, both Audi’s AD expert Ricky Hudi and Opel and GM executive Karl-Thomas Neumann named similar timeframes. Last but not least, Tesla CEO Elon Musk has already announced bold plans for 2017 – read on to find out what!

Road Safety: Tesla incident raises questions

If one topic really stood out in 2016, it was the fatal accident involving Joshua Brown – and the heated debate it spurred. In May 2016, Brown’s Tesla Model S collided with a truck in Florida – while the car’s Autopilot was activated. Brown was reportedly watching a movie at the time of the crash, indicating that he assumed he was sitting in a fully autonomous car. Although Tesla had labelled their Autopilot a beta version and told drivers to keep their hands on the wheel at all times, numerous videos on YouTube of Tesla drivers fooling around demonstrated that many users were mistaking the car’s semi-autonomous system with level 5 automation. Investigations by U.S. authorities followed – along with a public debate about the safety of automated driving features.

The first fatal Autopilot car crash shocked the whole industry. (Photo: Reuters)

While Tesla’s loyal base of supporters came to the company’s defense, the line of critics grew rapidly. In October, German authorities called Tesla’s Autopilot mode a “major traffic hazard”. And in an interview with 2025AD, automated driving expert Russ Shields accused Tesla of using “incomplete technology that I would not expect most OEMs to allow in their products.” 

Elon Musk accused journalists of “killing people” by over-reporting Autopilot crashes. Tesla has since released an over-the-air update of the Autopilot to increase safety. And by the end of next year, Musk wants the Autopilot function to be able to drive autonomously from L.A. to New York. The conversation about driverless cars, that much is certain, will not run dry in 2017.

2025AD: Thanks to all our readers

2016 was also the year that 2025AD saw the light of day. As a marketplace for ideas surrounding automated driving, we can look back at a year full of inspiring debates and insightful expert contributions from industry, science, politics and society. We would like to thank all of our contributors and users. And remember: this is your platform! In order to guide the topics being discussed, we invite you to participate in our user survey. Thanks in advance for your feedback!

We wish all members of the automated driving community a peaceful holiday season and a happy new year!

The 2025AD Team

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Angelo Rychel
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