Challenges startups must face before unleashing self-driving cars onto British roads

Autonomous vehicles could transform everything from cities to the world of labour. However, there are still many hurdles developers must tackle first

Challenges startups must face before unleashing self-driving cars onto British roads

We hate to break it to you but self-driving car developers have some serious obstacles to overcome. While some estimations suggest that 90% of cars on the road could be fully or highly autonomous by 2040, tech titans and startups alike must first leap massive technological hurdles as well as solving legislative questions concerning liability in the case of collisions, and even fatalities, before making this vision a reality. 

Although, this hasn’t stopped business leaders from pushing the sector forward. For instance, startups like FiveAI and have raised considerable rounds in the past few months while the ride-hailing unicorn Lyft acquired the smart mapping UK firm Blue Vision Labs to boost its autonomous division at the end of October 2018. 

Moreover, it seems like every Silicon Valley behemoth from Apple to Tesla is working on making human drivers obsolete. The competition is so fierce that Waymo and Uber went to court at the beginning of 2018 to settle an intellectual property dispute regarding – you guessed it – self-driving car technology.

So why is everyone obsessed with changing the way traffic works? Well, for starters, the world of transformation is ripe for disruption. From apps making it easier to plan your journey to smart city initiatives using big data to redirect traffic and avoid congestion, loads of businesses have aimed to rethink how people go from A to Z  over the past decade.

Not only will self-driving cars play a huge part in this revolution but it’s also good business. “Autonomous vehicles is one of the next most valuable industries on Earth,” said William Sachiti, the founder and CEO of the Academy of Robotics, the UK company behind the autonomous vehicle startup Kar-go.

Speaking exclusively with Elite Business, he continued: “McKinsey recently published a study on self-driving vehicles. In the publication, they stated that [self-driving] cars’ data alone would be worth $10tn by 2030. The reward for those who get in early could be huge, which is why we see so many companies getting involved. Disrupters of industries don’t tend to be industry incumbents, [but] the young adaptable tech startups which apply completely different logic and are able to move quickly, this is why we’re seeing many startups trying their hand.”

But the road towards entrepreneurial success – no matter how challenging it can be at the best of times – is particularly rocky for self-driving car developers. “The biggest challenge is a non-technical one – [it’s] legislation,” argued Sachiti. With the technology being cutting edge, legislators haven’t had a chance to catch up yet.

This became apparent earlier in 2018 when an autonomous vehicle being tested by Uber hit a pedestrian, killing her. In the aftermath, legal experts raised concerns about whether the liability laid with the car manufacturer, the technology supplier, the driver or with all of them. And as long as the question of liability remains unsettled, startups can find operating in this sector more of a challenge. “The [collision] is tragic and caused many self-driving car makers to reconsider their position,” said Sachiti. “While there is still a risk to human life, insurers are reluctant [to] underwrite policies which are an important part of the road to blanket legalisation.”

While the UK government is moving to enable more trials of the technology, these legal barriers also make it more difficult for startups for another reason. “[It’s] harder to raise funding or have investors put money into an industry which doesn’t quite have a solid legal framework yet,” Sachiti explained. “Once investors can see stability, more money can be poured into the technical challenges. This is important because the answer to most technical problems in the autonomous car space simply is to put more money into research.” 

Of course, overcoming those regulatory obstacles is just the beginning. Entrepreneurs also have to solve a lot of technological issues before self-driving cars can get onto UK roads. Chief among these is how they can enable the car to not only see but also to interpret the world around it. And it doesn’t stop there. “The next step is to predict what each person, car, bicycle or traffic light is going to do next, “ said Sachiti. “This is done by artificial intelligence. The intelligence runs on super-computers on the car which are pre-trained to know what it is looking at then it plans a journey and takes action based on what it understands.”

He added that there is also a large mountain to scale where connectivity is concerned. “Will our existing networks be able to cope with the sheer amount of data generated by autonomous cars?” he said. “There are considerations to be made on where the data should all be stored and if it’s being sent to the cloud, whether a simple 4G connection can cope. Currently, the solution auto makers are going for is to simply do all the processing on the car so that the vehicles don’t need an internet connection to be able to do a journey.”

Finally, entrepreneurs in this sector also have to tackle the public perception of self-driving cars. While roughly two-thirds of Americans believe robocars would be on the streets within the next few decades, 56% would refuse to ride in one, according to findings from Pew Research Center.

Other reports have also pointed out that introducing these vehicles could also cost millions of workers like truckers, delivery and taxi drivers their jobs. Understandably, some people are less than happy about introducing the tech on the streets.

But all is not lost, argued Sachiti. “Developers in the field can change public perception by showing off simple examples of how their tech works, making it [seem] less like magic and giving demonstrations of how it outperforms humans,” he explained. “Apple does a great job of showing off how they make their products and that makes their technology less scary. Car makers should probably do more demos of why and how autonomous cars work and why they’re safer than human counterparts.”

Nevertheless, it’s clear self-driving car developers have their work cut out for them before the transportation sector can truly gear up for any huge transformations.

Eric Johansson
Eric Johansson

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