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The Road to Autonomy: How Driverless Cars Are Poised to Revolutionize Transportation

AUTOMOTIVEThe Road to Autonomy: How Driverless Cars Are Poised to Revolutionize Transportation

The automation of transport is one of the key megatrends shaping this sector in recent years. At present, only level two autonomous cars are available for sale, equipped with advanced driver assistance systems. However, work is rapidly advancing on fully autonomous vehicles, with massive investments being made by leading players in both the automotive and software development sectors. Experts predict that the appearance of autonomous vehicles on the road is a matter of a few years and that the development of this technology will revolutionize many industries and potentially alleviate existing challenges in the transport sector and modern mobility.

“Automation in transport is an ongoing process. We are seeing an increasing number of assistance systems being used in each generation of vehicles to support the driver. These are systems that primarily monitor the surroundings and signal dangers. However, the more of these systems we use, the closer we are moving towards the ultimate goal of having only passengers onboard, with no need for drivers,” says Prof. Dr. Marcin Ślęzak, Director of the Institute for Automotive Transport, in a discussion with Newseria Biznes.

The development of the Internet of Things (IoT), Artificial Intelligence (AI), and cloud data processing and management solutions increase avenues for transport automation. This is one of the key megatrends shaping the sector in recent years. The Polish Economic Institute, in its report “Autonomous Transport of the Future,” notes that in the years 2011-2016, the annual increase in the number of patents in the field of autonomous vehicle technology was 42%. The forecasted value of the autonomous vehicle industry is expected to reach approximately 557 billion dollars globally by 2026 (Allied Market Research).

Experts believe that autonomous vehicles (AV) will revolutionize transport by increasing efficiency, comfort, and safety. Algorithms controlling these vehicles are continuously tested, and unlike human drivers, vehicles do not experience fatigue or distraction, eliminating the primary human factors leading to accidents. According to the PIE report, the cost of accidents and road collisions can be avoided by automation: only in Poland, they amount to 51 billion PLN. The automation of freight transport alone could save the Polish economy 3.6-4.9 billion PLN due to improved road safety.

“There are five levels of autonomous driving, and at each level, there is a different definition of how the driver and car collaborate and communicate about how to navigate,” says Andrzej Gemra, expert in public affairs and electromobility at Renault. “Today we have the second level, where the driver is informed about various road situations, whether there is someone on the side or rear and the car is equipped with assistance systems, for example, emergency braking. The next level is the possibility of taking hands off the steering wheel and at that point, the car uses its systems to move to a specific point, but at the third level, the driver is still required to return to driving occasionally.”

At the fourth level, the need for driver intervention is significantly reduced. Given favorable conditions, the car can almost drive itself. Therefore, appropriate road and telecommunication infrastructure is needed.

“On the other hand, the fifth level assumes no driver; the vehicle controls from the beginning to end, knows where to go, has a programmed or driver-designated route and goes from point A to point B,” Andrzej Gemra explains. “In Renault, we are working on SDV, or Software Defined Vehicle, which will have a large control unit for all car functions. By 2026 we will launch it for use and we will approach the third level.”

Currently, only level two autonomous cars (advanced driver assistance systems) are available for sale, but work on fully autonomous vehicles is rapidly progressing. The largest players are investing heavily in their development. Google’s parent company, Alphabet, finances Waymo, which has already conducted more than 16 million km of test drives. In November 2019, the company launched the first driverless taxi service in Phoenix, USA for a limited number of customers and specific areas, where the road infrastructure was adequately mapped and prepared. The largest automotive corporations, including Daimler and BMW, Audi, Ford, and Volkswagen, are also making multi-billion dollar investments.

“Mercedes is currently one of the first brands in three regions of the world to have homologation for production cars for level three SAE: in the USA, in California and Nevada, in China and Germany, where since 2021, they can move in conditional automation mode, up to 60 km/h. The system of automatic driving is already partly present in various technologies available at lower SAE levels, in modern Mercedes, including those driving on Polish roads. Examples include e-call, which, when the driver loses the ability to drive, the car automatically leaves the road, calls for help, and turns on hazard lights,” says Tomasz Mucha, responsible for product and corporate communication at Mercedes-Benz Poland.

Currently, it is difficult to determine when fully autonomous vehicles will appear on the roads since it depends on various factors such as economic, infrastructural, technological, and legislative ones. Prof. Marcin Ślęzak believes this could be a matter of a few years, but the technology’s spread will occur in stages.

“Firstly, it will be areas that are relatively separated from the chaotic traffic in cities. I am thinking of highways, where it is easiest to automate traffic. In the second phase, we can expect autonomous vehicles where repetitive tasks are performed, city vehicles like garbage trucks or postal vehicles. Only at the very end will we see vehicles used by typical residents for city commuting,” says Marcin Ślęzak.

The Polish Economic Institute report suggests the gradual implementation of autonomous solutions in road, rail, sea, and air transport as a certainty. The question is really about the timeframe. The revolution may initially affect the long-distance transport of goods. As Polish companies have the largest share in the EU freight market, automation in this segment would significantly impact the country’s economy and might solve the problem of a shortage of logistics sector workers in the future. Overall, the autonomy of transport will revolutionize several industries, such as shared mobility services.

“Carsharing, as we know it today, will not exist because autonomous solutions will eventually lead to a synthesis of car rental services with taxi services. It will look like this in practice: an autonomous car summoned by a mobile application will come to where we are and take us where we want to go,” says Leszek Leśniak, Managing Director of Panek Carsharing. “I assume that this will happen on a full, commercial scale in about 10 years.”

Experts believe that automation could provide a solution to transport problems such as traffic congestion and driver shortage and challenges associated with modern mobility, increasing the ability for the elderly and disabled to get around. However, social acceptance and how drivers themselves respond to AV will be key to the development of this technology.

“There will be times during the journey, like highways or expressways, where we will certainly gladly hand over driving to the automated system and focus on reading, conversing with family, or working on the computer. But there will also be times when driving may be a little more unusual, like mountainous winding roads, where the pleasure of driving will prevail, and the driver will take the wheel,” says Tomasz Mucha.

So far, the development of AV still faces many challenges, not only social ones but technical and infrastructural ones as well. This includes the need to adapt infrastructure to the needs of autonomous vehicles, such as equipping it with appropriate sensors or possibly a wider reconstruction. Experts mention protecting AVs against cyberattacks and legal provisions as another issue.

“The biggest challenge at the moment is legislation, this accounts for about 90% and technology which accounts for the remaining 10%. The technology is already here but still needs adjusting to specific cases,” indicates Leszek Leśniak.

The possibilities of technology and the most significant challenges related to the development of autonomous vehicles were the subjects of a debate held last week by the Automotive Transport Institute and the Mikromakro Institute Foundation.

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