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Prototype vs penetration: Putting perspective on driverless cars

When will we see driverless car market penetration? Not before 2040 according to new report (Photo: Fotolia)

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Stephan Giesler
Stephan Giesler

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Hello, automated driving community! Deutsche Bank says no widespread deployment of automated driving before 2040 while Germany takes the bull by the horns in facing the ethical challenges: we bring you this week’s key stories from the world of automated driving!

Automated driving entered the “not if but when” realm quite some time ago. And then it all went a bit crazy; in a “it’s coming any day now” sort of way. In the midst of such frenzies, it always takes a cool head to step back, assess and tell it like it is. This week, Deutsche Bank (DB) did just that.

In a report, entitled “Das ‘digitale Auto’: Mehr Umsatz, mehr Konkurrenz, mehr Kooperation” (“The digital car: More sales, more competition, more cooperation”), Deutsche Bank Research concluded that “several more decades will have to pass before the digital car has largely penetrated the passenger car market; Before 2040 this will probably not be the case.”

Now as far as an attention-grabbing headline goes, this isn’t exactly the sexiest. It’s not promising an autonomous driving world within the next few years. And so, alongside headlines from the likes of Ford and BMW who say they’re gunning for full automation by 2021, this report – on the surface – may seem somewhat conservative.

Remember however, the DB report is referring to the “high market penetration” of “digital cars” by 2040. These, by the way, are defined as cars in the “highest level of automation” which are “fully networked and able to communicate with their environment,” i.e. Level 5 automation. It rightly argues that for these to become the norm, it would require societal value shifts like renouncing well-established driving freedoms; either voluntarily or compelled by state regulation and the political discussions on this are likely to be controversial and lengthy. Basically, it will depend on social acceptance: and where societal attitudes are involved, making predictions is a whole different ballgame.

When OEMs like Ford or big tech firms however, release launch dates amidst a media frenzy, more often than not, they’re talking about prototypes, use-cases or proof-of-concept-cars with the capability of Level 4 automation. These dates matter after all: the pressure is on in what is a fiercely competitive supplier marketplace. To be a year behind a competitor could mean being out of the race - i.e. business.

So what this timely, detailed and realistic report means is we should not to lose sight of the bigger picture. Tech readiness and market penetration are two very different things. It’s saying: “Don’t get carried away when talking about the ‘race’ to autonomous driving. It will come, but regarding actual time to market there are more challenges along the way than just getting a prototype from highway entry to highway exit.” Thanks for the reality check DB.

Germany not afraid to take on the ethical conundrums

Speaking of social acceptance, this week, an Ethical Commission appointed by German Transport Minister Alexander Dobrindt came right out and said that morally speaking, automated driving becomes an imperative as soon as it causes fewer accidents than human drivers. Moreover, it has formulated what is the world’s first set of ethical guidelines on the subject.

It seems Germany isn’t afraid to come right out and say things (Angela Merkel’s recent statement), and this is yet another example that THE car nation is putting itself out in front of any other country on the automated driving map. How so? Because it is tackling some of the thorniest ethical issues surrounding automated driving head on.

According to the Süddeutsche Zeitung, when it comes to data protection for example, the experts fear that "full networking and centralized control of all vehicles in the context of a digital transport infrastructure is ethically unacceptable if it can not safely rule out the risks of total monitoring of traffic and the manipulation of vehicle control."  Vehicle users in that case would have to have a say on the transmission and use of the data themselves. Because privacy is nothing less than a human right.

Regarding the much debated “trolley problem”, the guidelines take this from the realm of hypothetical ethical musing into the direction of definitive answers. For example, the commission proposes that there should not be situations in which a computer qualifies people for personal characteristics, i.e. a decision that prioritizes the protection of children over that of the elderly. It also goes on to advise that human rights should always supersede those of property or animals. Questions of liability were also addressed within the twenty guidelines.

So Germany has set down the marker. Just because these philosophical questions are difficult to answer doesn’t mean they should be avoided. One only has to look to the U.S. political sphere or the Brexit to see the potential ramifications of not prioritizing sensitive issues such as data privacy – and the impact of a political campaign targeted down to every individual voter. The interesting thing now will be to see if other countries agree or follow suit. How universal is our moral compass? We could be about to find out.

So long, drive safely (until cars are driverless),

Stephan Giesler

Editor-in-Chief, 2025AD

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