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Three Roadblocks to a Driverless Car Future

Leave it to Elon Musk to set Silicon Valley buzzing.

At the recent annual developer’s conference hosted by NVIDIA Corporation (NVDA), he declared the advancement of technologies to enable self-driving vehicles a “solved problem.”

“We know exactly what to do – and we’ll be there in a few years,” Musk declared.

Now, in a country like the United States, driving is embedded deep in our culture. The thought of handing over the controls to a computer takes some getting used to.

Musk’s prediction is also pretty bold. Analysts don’t expect any meaningful traction for driverless cars for another five to 10 years.

So who’s right? The answer (and the profit opportunities) hinge upon overcoming three key roadblocks…

Like It or Not… the Future Is Autonomous

Let me first say, I’m a fervent believer in an autonomous future. And I’m not alone.

In addition to Elon Musk, countless auto executives believe that self-driving cars are going to be commonplace in the next decade, according to a new IBM survey.

That’s particularly telling, of course, because they can directly influence the speed at which we achieve that future reality. It’s their job. Literally.

But even if they move full speed ahead on developing autonomous driving technologies, there’s still a lot of ground to cover. And it won’t be easy.

Roadblock #1: Are You Ready to Trust a Robot? According to the U.S. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), more than 90% of car accidents are due to human error. And as many as 1.9 million crashes – including one in every three fatal crashes – could be avoided each year with the latest technologies.

But here’s the rub…

While driverless cars promise to improve safety, are we really ready to trust robots to take the wheel?

From a technology standpoint, the answer is clearly “not yet.”

Musk says consistent freeway speeds are easy. But “where it gets tricky is that open environment around 30 to 40 miles per hour.” That’s when potential hazards crop up – more traffic, stopping and starting, children playing, bikes, manhole covers, etc. All these hazards must be detected and avoided.

In those situations, Musk says, “It’s being able to recognize what you’re seeing and making the right decision.” And the technology just isn’t there yet.

The last part of Musk’s comment about making the “right” decision is also important to consider.

Are we humans ready to trust – and live with – a robot’s decision in difficult situations?

For instance, what happens when a car encounters an emergency, where it can’t avoid another car – or worse, a person?

At its core, this becomes an ethical decision.

Presumably, the robot will make it based on a set of pre-programmed values. But, again, are we prepared to truly accept the decisions?

This is a difficult question to answer. Nevertheless, it promises to influence how quickly we embrace a driverless future.

Adequate technology isn’t the only roadblock, though…

Roadblock #2: The Curse of Regulators. In reference to cars driving in traffic jams without assistance, Carlos Ghosn, Chairman and CEO of Renault-Nissan, said at this year’s Mobile World Congress, “That’s ready today. We just need the regulators to accept it.”

Indeed, the bureaucrats threaten to hold up progress.

Much like us, they’ll need to be convinced that driverless cars are reliable and safe. And undoubtedly, that will entail countless studies and road tests.

In other words, lots of waiting.

And then we’ll have to wait some more, as they take their merry old time – like the FAA is doing with the use of drones – to draft and approve regulations.

Granted, Musk, Ghosn, et al. will be lobbying hard to speed up the process. But there are no guarantees their efforts will be successful.

Roadblock #3: Dear, Luddites… Get Out the Way! The last obstacle to overcome before our driverless future takes hold is a practical one.

It’s going to take time to transition to driverless cars – even if all the Luddites embrace them en masse.

Frost & Sullivan predicts that a meaningful number of self-driving cars will hit the market by 2020. How many?

We’re only talking about 180,000 driverless cars being shipped that year, which is less than 1% of the total market.

Now, there are two ways of looking at this…

Either: It’s going to take many more shipments than that to replace the two billion or so conventional cars and trucks on the road today. Possibly up to 20 years.

Or: There’s loads of room for driverless car technology to run higher!

And that’s the bottom line here: I have no doubt that a driverless future is our ultimate destination. But we have a long road trip ahead of us before we arrive.

Ahead of the tape,

Louis Basenese