The Road to Autonomous Vehicles Will Include Twists and Turns

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Autonomous operation of vehicles is one of the highest-profile technological trends. It’s easy to understand, glitzy and will reduce accidents.

The industry seems to be at an early crossroads. The question isn’t whether totally autonomous vehicles will be built. They will be. Rather, it is whether the lion’s share of the market will be such vehicles or simply integrating the most useful elements into vehicles that are never fully autonomous.

Both approaches will be established. What is not yet clear is which will be the predominant business model and which will be the niche. In other words, what will predominate in a decade: People hopping into their cars telling the speech-enabled electronics the destination and settling in to watch a movie, or human drivers simply supplemented by a cadre of electronic helpers?

Recent news provides evidence that both sides are on the winning track.

Intel made two interrelated announcements. It closed its acquisition of Mobileye, a company that Intel says specializes in computer vision and machine learning, data analysis, localization and mapping “development of computer vision and machine learning, data analysis, localization and mapping for advanced driver assistance systems and autonomous driving.” The purchase price is $15.3 billion.

Intel also announced that it will build a fleet of 100 Level 4 AVs to be tested in the United States, Israel and Europe. AVs are divided according to the amount of autonomy that is assigned. Level 4, according to the story, are “capable of handling most driving situations.” Full autonomy – Level 5 – is theoretical.

Intel clearly is going all in on AVs. That certainly has something to do with the company’s belief that the market will be worth more than $7 trillion.

Evidence that the slower approach may be prudent comes from IHS Markit and the automakers themselves. IHS found that full autonomy “is not yet popular among a broad audience” but that some of the features it brings are. The survey is based on responses from more than 5,000 people who intend to buy new cars during the next three years in the United States, Canada, China, Germany and the United Kingdom.

The autonomous market clearly is not set:

Just 44 percent of all respondents indicated that full autonomy would be a desirable feature on their next car, the lowest rank of all of the technologies included in this subsection of the survey. Interestingly, however, it also ranked as the technology that consumers would be most willing to pay for, according to IHS Markit. Price points varied by country, with US consumers indicating they would pay the highest price to have the feature in their next new vehicle.

Another sign that the road to riches may not be a straight one was mentioned at Reuters, which suggests that there are two drivers behind the entry into AV alliances by BMW and Daimler. One is to enlarge the pool of engineers working on the challenge. The other is defensive:

But another motive behind these deals, executives and industry experts told Reuters, is a concern that robocars may not live up to the profit expectations that drove an initial investment rush.

Much of this is about timing. Fully automated vehicles will eventually be available. If it takes too long to develop Level 5 vehicles, the market may center more fully on adding useful autonomous tools to cars and trucks that people still drive.

Carl Weinschenk covers telecom for IT Business Edge. He writes about wireless technology, disaster recovery/business continuity, cellular services, the Internet of Things, machine-to-machine communications and other emerging technologies and platforms. He also covers net neutrality and related regulatory issues. Weinschenk has written about the phone companies, cable operators and related companies for decades and is senior editor of Broadband Technology Report. He can be reached at cweinsch@optonline.net and via twitter at @DailyMusicBrk.

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