The Future of Autonomous Vehicles
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The underlying topic of this discussion was the role that self-driving vehicles could have in the not so distant future. The moderator, Dr. Hans-Peter Kleebinder, had invited three guests onto the virtual stage:

Prof. Dr. Andreas Herrmann, Director of the Institute of Mobility in St. Gallen,
Johann Jungwirth "JJ", Vice President of Mobility-as-a-Service (MaaS) at Mobileye, and
Lukas Neckermann, COO at Splyt, and strategist and advisor to many companies in the mobility sector.

"The big four challenges of mobility all revolve around available space, emissions, congestion and accidents. These are the big issues we need to get at. We need a parallel incentive system that motivates people to get into shuttles together. Only by giving up our own vehicles and being willing to sharing vehicles will we master the challenges of transportation," was how Prof. Dr. Andreas Herrmann from St.Gallen opened the discussion. Prof. Herrmann is convinced that autonomous driving vehicles could provide the solution for our current mobility problems.

Mobileye is an Intel Company based in the Jerusalem area and Johann a globally renowned expert in the field of automated driving. His mission lies in making a dent in the universe by improving people's life with simple, surprising, and delighting solutions with a clear focus on mobility solutions. “After over 20 years in the automotive industry, with a focus on self-driving vehicles for the past ten, I am convinced that we must pursue this topic in order to make mobility safer, more accessible, convenient and affordable, as well as cleaner and more efficient,” stated Johann from Mobileye.

Lukas Neckermann is COO at Splyt, and works as strategist and advisor for ‘The Mobility Revolution’. After coining the term in his first book back in 2014, he has followed up with three more books on topics such as smart cities, smart mobility, and autonomous driving. „In London we implemented speed limits of about 30 km/h throughout the inner-city, helping vehicle ownership to become less attractive. Autonomous driving with sharing and electric will lead to a livable and more attractive urban design with mobility on demand, and finally we will be able to solve the real problem of 1.35 million traffic deaths per year on the world's roads," he stated on the night.

I myself tend to compare this race to the competition between the USA and USSR during the 60s in the race to be the first man on the moon.  The competition we are currently seeing in the autonomous driving sphere is a little different, after all, it has more players competing on a mobility solution, with the mobility solution providers based all around the globe. From Israel to the US, to China, India or Japan – all are keen to be the first to create successful autonomous driving solutions. Additionally, several European initiatives are on track to get autonomous driving onto the road. In my eyes, a truly global race has started, all in the race to create a more sustainable and safe way of transportation.

The autonomous driving industry consists of many players, with both traditional mobility providers and many new names having appeared on the scene in recent years.  There are international OEMs such as Volkswagen, Ford, and Daimler, but also new companies such as Easymile and NAVYA. The big problem: self-driving technology with the aim to moving people and goods around the world is expensive to build. Hence, we also see an ever-increasing number of players working together or purchasing promising startups. For example, former rivals Volkswagen and Ford have invested together in the mobility startup The US chip-giant Intel has purchasied the Israeli companies Mobileye and moovit in recent years. The businesses Waymo, Aurora, and, which similarly aim to take the driver out of the equation, have also received considerable financing.

Let me note here that self-driving technology is also of interest outside of the transportation of humans. The transport of goods is another potential market in which autonomous vehicles are set to make their mark. In the US, we can already find the first lanes on freeways with self-driving trucks testing Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS), with traffic sign recognition and the like. Given that self-driving systems are complex with lots of hard- and software, which need to be tested and improved over time, this is excellent news for those looking for an autonomous vehicle future.

"it's very important to experience it, you can do as much market research and studies as you want, but we have to offer it to people to experience these autonomous rides”.
Johann Jungwirth, Vice President of Mobility-as-a-Service (MaaS) at Mobileye

The obvious first obstacle is (or better, used to be) legislation. After years of push-back around the globe, some governments have recently changed tact to take the lead on self-driving vehicles. Both the Chinese government and several States in the US have issued selected permits for private commercial autonomous vehicle rides. In fact, the autonomous driving companies Waymo and Cruise have both been able to apply for permits for commercial autonomous vehicle rides in San Francisco early May. Once issued, the permits will become the first real-life commercial deployments for autonomous vehicles in such a dense urban area. There is good news in Europe as well. The legislative framework is improving for EU member states. This summer, the German Bundestag and Bundesrat will pass regulations for expanding the routes on which autonomous driving is permitted. In France, these framework conditions were already enforced in mid-April 2021. JJ xplained that he expects increased autonomous driving tests throughout Europe from 2022, with Mobileye already testing in the Munich area today.

With legislation no longer a barrier, what are the remaining obstacles for the breakthrough of autonomous mobility? According to the experts on stage, it all comes down to psychology. In essence, it is our emotional affinity to the steering wheel. After all, there is a lot more to driving than just turning right and left. Lukas explains, “in addition to all the legal and technical conditions, a change in the behavior of mobility users is needed”. The decisive factor will be how we, as the passengers of tomorrow, will react to not having a steering wheel or brake pedal.

Mobileye is actually out in the field researching what it takes to abolish the fear and anxiety of passengers in self-driving vehicles. JJ remarks: "it's very important to experience it, you can do as much market research and studies as you want, but we have to offer it to people to experience these autonomous rides”. So, where can you take a trip in a self-driving vehicle? In the US, Google’s autonomous driving unit Waymo has offered test rides in their autonomous vehicles since 2010. Google’s experience with this has been very positive. JJ explains why, pointing out that “after about 10 minutes, a feeling of safety sets in; it definitely comes down to user-experience”. Moreover, it is “through displays and digital media in the vehicle itself” that a test drive can “help people to gain confidence in these new technologies”.

Jungwirth from Mobileye concludes the Clubhouse talk by saying, “I believe that MaaS based on self-driving vehicles is the right thing to do for both society and for individuals”. Nevertheless, it remains that self-driving vehicles will remain a hot topic for discussion in the months and years ahead. I myself have taken away from the talk that I will aim to be testing a driverless vehicle ride very soon. For my own comfort, at least!

What do all these industry specific details mean for us, as everyday drivers and passengers? What kind of a life should we expect when we see an autonomous vehicle on our streets? Will we still have a choice between driving on our own in our private cars, or will we only have access to driverless shuttles? What does it mean for long distance trips? How can we expect our deliveries to be delivered? And, finally, what does it mean for our surroundings, whether that be a city, the city perimeter, or the countryside? The one thing that the three guest experts agreed on was that we will have to discuss both the possible and expected implications together as a society in the coming years. Some of these questions have no one clear answer, and will depend on what we decide we want collectively.