In technology, first place isn’t everything. There are plenty of examples of businesses coming late to the party, perfecting an existing idea and walking away with the profits. After all, Apple didn’t invent the MP3 player, smartphone or the tablet. However, implementing an idea first does offer some benefits, particularly when it comes to high-value products that consumers are unlikely to chop and change so readily. This is why the race is on for technology firms to perfect the next stage of automotive evolution: the self-driving car.
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Who’s in the driving seat?
Despite the technology only being at the testing stage, there are already a number of companies openly pursuing self-driving technology. These can be split into two groups: traditional automobile firms and modern technology corporations. When it comes to the former, Audi, BMW, Ford, Honda and Volkswagen are just a few of the big-name competitors, while Google, Apple and Tesla are some of the more prominent tech firms involved. However, with each business choosing to divulge varying amounts of information, it is far from clear which company is most likely to dominate the autonomous vehicle industry.
Tesla, the electric car firm led by Elon Musk, has perhaps been the most open about its self-driving projects, with the company’s “auto-pilot” feature having been included (although not enabled) on every Tesla release since September 2014. However, the company suffered a setback in May when a Tesla driver was killed after the onboard software was unable to pick out a white lorry against the bright sky. It remains to be seen whether updates announced this week will be enough to assuage consumer worries.
Google has also been happy to share information regarding its self-driving car, having already clocked up more than 1.5 million miles, while Apple’s progress has proven more secretive with rumours of setbacks and layoffs having plagued the mysterious “Project Titan” for some time. For Tesla, Apple, Google and the more traditional automotive firms, this race is perhaps one that is more likely to be won by the tortoise than the hare. A premature release followed by an accident of any kind that can be attributed to a software or hardware error would be disastrous for the company involved and could set back the entire self-driving vehicle industry by years.
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The home straight
Whichever company ultimately comes out on top, they may still have a difficult task convincing consumers to let go of the wheel. Aside from safety concerns, many may find it difficult to transition from driver to passenger, particularly given Mr Musk’s recent suggestion that human-driven cars could become illegal in the future. Will self-driving cars be such an easy sell if they are viewed as the beginning of the end for driving itself?
On the other side of the argument, Gerry Keaney, Chief Executive Officer of the British Vehicle Rental and Leasing Association (BVRLA), believes that autonomous vehicles are likely to receive a warm reception from the public. “Every demographic study you read about young people living in the major cities shows that they are increasingly less motivated to learn to drive,” he said. “They are less motivated to take their driving test and, where they do learn to drive, they are less interested in owning a vehicle.”
Ultimately, it is surely a matter of ‘if’, not ‘when’ we will see self-driving cars filling our motorways. Reservations are understandable, but technological progress usually carries on regardless. If that weren’t the case, we’d still be travelling around by coach and horseback.