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The future of driving: what to expect in 2021

Rohit Gupta explores the future of driverless and electric cars: what can we expect in the coming years, and what is currently holding them back?

From flying taxis and self-driving cars to personal jet packs, emerging transportation technologies like these, once considered futuristic, are seemingly on the cusp of becoming an everyday reality. However, the true advancements made in these kinds of technologies have perhaps been overstated. So far, the reality in 2021 is that we are unlikely to see autonomous vehicles on the road for at least a number of years.

Current progress in the UK

In the UK, the Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles plans to undertake experimental trials for autonomous cars in spring 2021. This could see the introduction of Automated Lane Keeping Systems (ALKS) on UK roads, enabling vehicles to move at low speed, without any need for the driver to intervene. The UK has also set up the Darwin SatCom Lab in Oxfordshire for commercial driverless car trials.

However, one of the biggest challenges to scaling up these kinds of intelligent transport systems in practice is that the supporting infrastructure is yet to mature. Trams and trains are able to run as they do because they have a defined infrastructure made up of their own light signals and tracks. On the other hand, there is no comparable supporting infrastructure that enables driverless cars.

Getting the correct infrastructure protocols defined and agreed upon is another crucial step towards taking driverless cars mainstream

An intelligent infrastructure is required to facilitate the jump to autonomy, as cars will need to exchange large volumes of data to continuously understand the context and environment around them, both to help control their movements and to ensure passenger safety. While some developments have been made, such as the increased use of embedded road-sensors and techniques like London’s SCOOT, which reduces congestion by varying traffic signals based on vehicle flow rate, there is still a long way to go. Until the appropriate infrastructure is in place, it will also be difficult for insurers to offer competitive services for consumers who own such cars.

The road to driverless vehicles

A number of developments in key technology areas will be required to support the required infrastructure. Among other things, these include IoT enablement for roads, lanes, signals, road-signs, parking, and e-charging points; a robust 5G network for real-time, high volume data sharing (V2V, V2I); cloud-based mobility-as-a-service platforms that capture, collate, and share data with wider transport ecosystems and AI-driven automated traffic management and decision support to help predict congestion, hazard detections and diversion.

Getting the correct infrastructure protocols defined and agreed upon is another crucial step towards taking driverless cars mainstream. The regulatory bodies across the UK and Europe are developing the policies, standards, and strategic roadmaps for development and large-scale deployment of connected and automated mobility (CAM). This includes 5G cross-border corridors, C-Roads projects for the digitalisation of road infrastructures, and Cooperative Intelligent Transport Systems (CITS)—a system that enables V2V and V2I data exchange. So far developments have been slow, which is significantly hindering the chances of seeing such vehicles on the road over the next 12 months.

Darwin vehicles UI
The Darwin SatCom Lab is now open to companies looking to explore next generation connectivity solutions for connected and autonomous vehicles (CAVs) using both 5G and satellite communications

The role of manufacturers

For autonomy to become a reality, there are efforts that manufacturers must make to enhance their driverless offerings. One step could be implementing artificial intelligence into the back-, middle- and front-office processes, which would allow companies to accelerate their operational speed and their ability to derive insight into all aspects of their operations in material ways.

European manufacturers already embed millions of lines of code in the latest cars rolling off their factory floors; the next phase of autonomous driving clearly needs the engineering prowess to design, produce, and distribute successful cars, as well as the digital smarts. New opportunities and partnerships could emerge to build, deliver, and consume products and services based on the insights across the value chain. To stay ahead of the curve, leaders should set a 12-month target in which they aim to match their technology investments to that of the anticipated growth in data volumes.

However, like so many other industries, car manufacturers have been significantly impacted by the pandemic. Most have been forced to furlough a large percentage of workers, and revenues have been significantly dented, so investment in new technologies like driverless cars has been reduced or put on hold. In fact, Uber recently announced that it is selling off its self-driving car business to focus on other, perhaps more important and successful, areas of revenue.

While the time will likely come for many manufacturers to truly invest their manpower and money in the development of exciting, emerging technologies like self-driving cars, capital and demand are low, and the technology is still in the early stages of development

This trend is expected to continue throughout 2021, with more automotive companies pivoting to focus back on the basics, such as using imagery, connected devices, and AI to make factories safer; implementing machine learning models to predict and prevent machine failures; making their online presence stronger; or forging partnerships outside their ecosystems. Additionally, with global supply chains significantly disrupted by the pandemic, it is vital that manufacturers make the most of available data and analytics to reimagine how to source, store, and assemble in a way that reduces operational uncertainties and optimises overall supply chain cost.

The future is electric

Following the UK’s ban on new gasoline and diesel cars from 2030, one emerging area at the forefront of car manufacturers’ minds is electric vehicles. However, demand for such cars is limited by their higher price point, which means manufacturers have an important role to play in overcoming this challenge. Suggested areas of priority for reducing costs include value chain integration, manufacturing, and speeding up R&D by increasing agility and enabling virtual prototyping.

Regardless, a combination of global green goals, an impending ICE ban in the UK, and the EU’s target to cut greenhouse gas emissions for transport by 60% (from 1990 levels) by 2050 will make the production of electric vehicles one area in which we can expect to see further advancement in 2021.

Ultimately, while the time will likely come for many manufacturers to truly invest their manpower and money in the development of exciting, emerging technologies like self-driving cars, capital and demand are low, and the technology is still in the early stages of development. For now, there are many other areas of investment, such as electric vehicles, that manufacturers can and should be focusing on to meet current consumer demands and see return on their investments in the short-term.

About the author: Rohit Gupta is Vice President of Products and Resources at Cognizant

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