Autonomous Cars – From Driver’s Seat to Riding Shotgun?

July 02, 2015| By Mathias Schubert | Auto/Motor | English

I’m a moderate car buff. I like driving - not the stop-and-go in the city, not the bumper-to-bumper on the motorway, but the winding country lane, the less frequented alpine pass, or the Mediterranean island with little traffic.

We have been reading about autonomous cars (also referred to as self-driving or driverless cars) for years. While the concept isn't new, its practical implementation seems no longer in the distant future.

For the time being, my own enthusiasm for sitting passively in the “driver’s seat”, most likely simultaneously being legally obliged to pay attention to what is going on while I’m being chauffeured, is limited. It seems that I’m not alone in this position: A study conducted by the UK’s Automobile Association found that 65% of people liked driving too much to want an autonomous car.

Of course, others will have a different view, e.g. people who don’t like driving or feel insecure doing it.

To some extent, the technology is already here in products available to the general public, assuming they can afford them, rather than in experimental vehicles such as the famous Google car. For instance, the new Mercedes-Benz S-Class includes a “Traffic Jam Assistant”, which enables it to automatically follow a car in front at low speed.

However, the prognoses vary wildly as to when autonomous cars will be introduced at a large scale, gradually displacing conventional automobiles driven by humans. Will it begin to happen as early as 2018 or so, or will it be more like 2030? Be this as it may, the advent of autonomous vehicles will most likely be a gradual development, and it appears doubtful that the fully autonomous car - a vehicle that is both able and legally permitted to drive unaided for the entire journey with no human intervention, possibly even without a human in it - will become a reality for practical purposes any time soon.

Development of these vehicles in two or even three overlapping main stages, following further testing and experimental use of autonomous vehicles, reflects a widely held view. The UK Department for Transport, on the basis of feedback obtained during a consultation held in 2014, expects first the introduction of “highly automated vehicles” and later the roll out of “fully automated vehicles”.

An unpublished study prepared by Exane BNP Paribas makes more specific estimates on the timing for three stages, which can be summarized as follows:

  • A slow and gradual introduction of “semi-automated vehicles”, beginning presently
  • The advent of the comparatively faster-growing segment “highly automated vehicles”, beginning around 2020
  • The slowly growing segment of “fully automated vehicles”, beginning sometime after 2020 and representing a market share of less than 15% by 2035 of all three segments combined

The chart doesn’t show the aggregate market share of the three segments combined within the total global passenger car market. In 2014 global passenger car sales were about 65 million units. On this basis, global passenger car sales could reach 80 million to 85 million units by 2020, and 100 million to 110 million units by 2025, which would mean that automated vehicles – on the basis of the Exane BNP Paribas estimates – could account for about 30% of all passenger car sales by that time. It would likely take about another five years for automated vehicles to reach a market share in the region of 60% or 70%.

The chart below offers a more detailed orientation with regard to the various levels of automation. It illustrates automation that is, or is going to be, technically possible; it does not reflect what degree of automation is or will be compliant with current or future legislation.

I have few doubts that the regulatory implications and requirements, the complexities of which appear at times somewhat exaggerated, will be addressed in a timely fashion. The liability and insurance-related implications, however, are both interesting and challenging. A recurring view is that MTPL will stay but may have to be adjusted, notably depending on how the MTPL regime is shaped in a given country, and that product liability will increase in importance and complexity. If you are interested in some provocative ideas for novel solutions, you may find my article of interest.


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