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Meet The Autonomous Car That Can Smile

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Summary

Driverless cars show just what can be achieved if technology is used intelligently

3 min read

In 2016, the Swedish tech company Semcon unveiled an autonomous car design with a difference. It smiles.

Semcon created the concept as a response to a big challenge for the driverless car industry: how to communicate subtle signals to pedestrians and other road users.

This might sound trivial, but it’s far from it. Human drivers negotiate the roads with nods, waves and gestures. Without these signals, there would be chaos. Body language matters – and for all their millions of lines of code, driverless cars are hopeless at it. So Semcon’s concept car has an electronic grill that grins to let pedestrians know it’s OK to cross.

Of course, the move also makes the cars appear friendlier. This is useful, since the concept of driverless cars has many people worried about safety and jobs. 

These fears will need to be addressed because the autonomous car revolution looks inevitable. KMPG predicts that 25 per cent of new car sales in the UK will be fully autonomous by 2030. ‘Fully’ is the important word here. The industry puts autonomous cars in six categories, from L0 (driver only) to L5 (fully autonomous). KPMG estimates that L4 cars (autonomous for defined routes) could be on the streets by 2021. It is positive about the change, not least because driverless cars could generate £51 billion a year for the UK economy by 2030.

“The average driver spends over an hour a day in the car. Using that time more effectively – even if it’s for pleasure – could have a favourable impact on productivity.”

“The benefit will come from helping people to be more productive,” says John Leech, head of automotive at KPMG UK. “The average driver spends over an hour a day in the car. Using that time more effectively – even if it’s for pleasure – could have a favourable impact on productivity.”

John is also positive about the impact on jobs, even though hundreds of thousands of people currently drive for a living. “I think society will always find employment for people. This is a reallocation of skills problem. It’s something the government has to look at.”

Even now, there is a thriving autonomous car industry in the UK, led by the Connected Intelligent Transport Environment (UK CITE) project. Hundreds of companies and an estimated 20,000 engineers are working in the space.

They’re building the vehicles, but a more interesting question for the future is: who will control the market? After all, if cars go driverless, why own one? And if you don’t own a car, how would you access one?

The obvious answer is through an app. In this scenario, you would subscribe to a ‘mobility provider’ and it would send you a suitable car – or maybe direct you to a bus or train. This mobility provider could be Hertz or Uber, or even Amazon.

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25%

Of car sales in the UK will be fully autonomous by 2030

51

Billion a year generated by driverless cars in the UK by 2030

20k

Estimated number of engineers currently working on autonomous cars

It could also be a conventional carmaker, though the vested interests of manufacturers might weigh against this. In 2016, Mark Field, CEO of Ford, famously said the future of Ford was as a mobility provider. In June 2017, he was sacked.

Whoever wins this race will wield immense power. Analysts draw parallels with today’s mobile industry, where users are more loyal to the software (Windows and Android) than the device itself (HTC, Sony or Samsung).

Tech analyst Ben Evans, a partner at venture capitalists Andreessen Horowitz, argues the case on his blog. He says: “It’s easy to look at a car and say ‘this should be a smartphone’. It seems likely this should be driven by the software-powered device that you replace every two years, not the car that you replace every ten years.”

Once these issues are resolved, the social ramifications of the driverless car revolution can only be guessed at. What will we do with the empty car parks? Will there be more drunkenness? Will cars become workplaces?

Again, John Leech tends to the positive. He believes cities will be reborn. “Travel will be so much easier, with no parking and 24-hour access,” he says. “I think we could see a real revival in urban spaces.”

Key Takeaways

Autonomous vehicles are emerging as a key technology for the future and show just what can be achieved when technology is used intelligently. But despite millions of lines of code, they struggle with the simple gestures that humans use when negotiating roads, such as nods and waves.  

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