2018 Top Trends Mid-Year Review

2: Driverless Car Cliff

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THIS WAS OUR 2018 TREND FORECAST: The Trends Research Institute forecast that truly autonomous vehicles and driverless taxis flooding the freeways, highways and side streets of a country near you is a geek-fed fantasy for another lifetime. 

However, we do forecast that autonomous vehicles specifically engineered for mining, trucking, city busing – moving people or cargo from point A to point B on specific routes — is the near/midterm future for driverless vehicles.

MID-YEAR UPDATE: Since 2015, we have warned Trends Journal subscribers: don’t buy the constant mainstream business media hype and auto industry PR blitz that a driverless world is imminent.

Despite automakers investing billions to make their driverless dreams come true, we forecast that the literal smoke and mirrors of driverless vehicles will not measure up to the hard scientific realities.
Our research shows that the driverless technology is not advancing at the pace the public is being led to believe.  

In identifying “Driverless Car Cliff” as a top 2018 trend, we forecast this would be the year “investors and auto-industry watchers will learn just how many twists, turns, bumps and detours are along the road to vehicles that drive themselves.”

In the United States, that forecast has become reality. With increasing frequency, politicians and tech companies themselves are beginning to put the brakes on their enthusiasm for this as yet unreliable technology. 

Our tracking of this trend found that since 2015, when the hype revved up, reports from the R & D side of the driverless world identified one major under-reported tech failure after another. It was only a matter of time before these tech failures, would become human fatalities.

Two fatalities in the U.S. at the hands of autopilots earlier this year, combined with a series of high-profile tech failures prompted some automakers and tech firms to scale back research and testing, demonstrating just how unreliable this technology remains.

This past March, in Tempe, Arizona, the world’s first pedestrian to be killed by a self-driving car was hit while crossing the street at night. And just five days later, an Apple engineer was killed inside a Tesla autonomous vehicle, after the vehicle slammed into a concrete highway barrier in Mountain View, CA.

These fatalities and numerous other mishaps amplify the limitations and dangers of autonomous vehicles when the technology is tested outside the lab and on the street, even when technicians are in the vehicle to troubleshoot.

What is emerging from post-accident reports on these high-profile incidents confirms a key factor detailed in our forecasts: The emerging technology, no matter how sophisticated, cannot yet respond safely and effectively to even normal driving conditions.

The technology, the post-accident analyses showed, didn’t fail; the robot cars simply were unable to respond effectively to everyday road circumstances.

As one report concluded: “There were no software glitches or sensor breakdowns that led to a fatal crash; merely poor object recognition, emergency planning and system design.”

Within days of the fatal incidents, state legislatures began crafting bills to either ban or significantly restrict testing autonomous vehicles on their roadways. In fact, by mid-year, 35 states had introduced nearly 200 bills to restrict or regulate driverless vehicles.

U.S. SLOWS BUT THE WORLD SPEEDS UP TESTING

However, while U.S. regulatory policies are slowing down the rush to driverless vehicles, tech firms and automakers are finding far fewer legislative obstacles in the UK, Germany, South Korea, China, Singapore and other countries, where governments have enacted legislation allowing public road testing and facilitating robotic driving.

BMW Group, for example, has become the first international carmaker to obtain a Shanghai Intelligent Connected Autonomous Driving Test License, allowing the testing of driverless vehicles on roads in China.

In Japan, autonomous vehicle testing is being expanded, as the country “digitizes” select roadways, a process that will ultimately designate driverless vehicle zones. And SoftBank, a mega-Japanese tech investment firm, announced in May it would invest $2.25 billion for a 20 percent stake in GM’s autonomous vehicle business.

Meanwhile, the UK is creating and expanding public trial test zones in four cities, while France and Israel are allowing public roadway tests of autonomous vehicles in designated areas.  And in Germany, driverless testing is pervasive, but the automaker remains liable in any accident.

Perhaps most aggressive in pushing autonomous vehicles onto public roads is South Korea, which allows testing across 200 miles of roadway, while planning to construct a test circuit in Hwaseong, south of Seoul, later this year.

MY DOOR KEY WON’T WORK

Again, our research concludes that the high-tech expectations belie basic realities. As current data clearly demonstrates, higher tech means a greater rate of failure for an auto industry that struggles with even simple low-tech solutions: exploding air bags, electronic door keys that don’t work, brakes that fail, ignition switches that won’t turn off, false dash board warning lights, etc.

Indeed, the number of vehicle recalls due to mechanical or technical problems nearly tripled from 19.4 million in 1996 to 53.1 million in 2016.

TREND FORECAST: While the Trends Research Institute does not provide financial advice, we forecast trends that identify favorable or unfavorable investment and profit opportunities. The mantra that driverless cars will become the norm by 2030 is simply and overwhelmingly not supported by our trend-line data.

We continue to forecast that, for the foreseeable future, self-driving vehicles will be specialty items limited to use in narrow tasks such as in mining operations, shuttling cargo, and along short, pre-defined routes.

We also forecast that despite investments being made by online sellers, grocery chains and fast food companies to bring products to customers' doorsteps via driverless vehicles, this, too, will be more of a fantasy than a fact-based reality.