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Can cars really be fully autonomous by 2020?

Autonomous cars have been a big focus at this year’s Geneva Motor Show, with many OEMs saying they will have them on the roads by 2020. But does 'autonomous' mean 'driverless'?

Autonomous cars have been a big focus at this year’s Geneva Motor Show, especially highlighted by Renault Nissan Chief Executive Carlos Ghosn, who confirmed that both Renault and Nissan will have autonomous cars on the roads by 2020.

He outlined how the technology will arrive in three steps, beginning in 2016 and increasing in ability to 2020, with cars eventually driving themselves around town.

But the distinction between ‘automated’ and ‘driverless’ by this date is still questionable. Despite many manufacturers pinpointing 2020 as the year for autonomy, Ghosn was quick to differentiate between autonomous driving cars where a driver is in control and self-driving cars like the Google car concept where the driver has no input. “After we’ve introduced our autonomous technology comes driverless cars, but they’re in the long term in ten years plus,” Ghosn clarified.

So what level of autonomy is really expected in 2020, and when can cars really become ‘driverless’ on public roads?

A closed environment

Chris Borroni-Bird, Vice President, Strategic Development at Qualcomm, spoke to Automotive World about the future direction of automated cars, explaining, “If we’re talking about fully autonomous vehicles like those Google is working on, I think it might be possible to bring them to market but in a closed environment. It could be a tourist resort or a small island. But when it comes to bringing this into cities, there are many politics and challenges.”

Before 2020 in real-world use, Borroni-Bird noted that he could see automated vehicles operating in a controlled environment which could also be complimented by electric vehicles and shared vehicles, bringing with them the potential for new business models: “At some point, the capabilities of fully autonomous and fully electric will be able to converge with the traditional car, and we’ll have conventional cars being fully autonomous and fully electric, but I think that will happen by 2020.”

Renault-Nissan Alliance CEO Carlos Ghosn

Renault Nissan Chief Executive Carlos Ghosn confirmed that both Renault and Nissan will have autonomous cars on the roads by 2020

Most OEMs at the Geneva Motor Show this year are considering or making developments with autonomous technology. Ford’s Global Marketing Chief Stephen Odell explained to Automotive World that while the capability for a vehicle to drive autonomously may be available by 2020, “the issue is that for vehicles to drive fully autonomously, the infrastructure needs to be developed much further. Other cars on the road have to have similar capabilities and there are a lot of legislative issues to be resolved by 2020, including liability for any crashes that may occur. I think they are resolvable issues but they are yet to be resolved.”

Hans-Werner Kaas, Director at consulting firm McKinsey, agreed with Odell, explaining to Automotive World that while in 2020 there will be further commercial usage of autonomous vehicles, broad private end consumer adoption will likely not happen by 2020. “This is due to aspects of technology maturity, such as communicating or at least recognition between autonomous vehicles and normal vehicles in the vehicle population and regulation aspects which still need to be defined.”

Xavier Peugeot, Product Planning Chief at Citroen, also spoke to Automotive World at the Geneva Show, noting, “There is more and more technology becoming available to assist the driver and eventually the technology will enable the machine take over the driving task.”

“This will not be an overnight move,” clarified Peugeot. “But progressively we will see things coming. By 2020 there will be more driving solutions but fully automated vehicles will take some time.”

Rachel Boagey