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How will autonomous vehicles evolve over the next decade?

(Image credit: Image Credit: Karsten Neglia / Shutterstock)

Vehicle manufacturers have been investing heavily in the development of Advanced Driver-Assistance Systems (ADASs) over the past decade, and in the last year, US-based self-driving startups received a staggering $4.5bn worth of VC funding. As investment pours into the sector the potential applications of autonomous technologies continue to expand, but how will driverless vehicles evolve over the next decade? And how will these developments impact our cities?

Widespread integration of ADAS

Early iterations of ADASs offered assistance with basic system monitoring and warnings, but in recent years ADASs have evolved to encompass more advanced tasks now often associated with autonomous vehicles, such as parking, breaking and steering. Vehicle manufacturers and major technology players are both investing heavily in autonomous technologies, and with pioneers in the space demonstrating their capabilities, it’s highly likely that we’ll see more advanced ADASs integrated into commercial vehicles in the next two to three years.

Ultimately, the introduction of high-level ADA Systems will prove beneficial to a wide range of road users. Not only are we likely to see autonomous vehicles being used across short distances to move people along pre-planned routes in shuttle-like services, but we’ll also see long-distance hauliers benefit from the support that ADA Systems can provide drivers. Collectively, these technologies will not only reduce congestion – particularly in densely populated cities – but also help to reduce road accidents.

Underpinning the development of these high-level assistance systems will be improvements in the sensors that they rely on. These developments (including increased range and accuracy on lidars, radars and cameras) will also be supported in improvements to General Processing Units (GPUs), which will allow Autonomous Vehicles’ (AVs) onboard computers to process sensor data faster and more accurately.

5G deployment will also promote further innovation in the AV space, particularly as connected devices become more integrated into our cities. The increased number of smart devices and sensors within cities will provide AVs with data that embedded sensors will not have access to, such as traffic. A deeper understanding of the limitations of AI and deep learning will also help to mitigate the risks inherent to these technologies, in turn allowing the industry to utilise it in the most effective ways possible.

Prioritisation of safety

The safety of both passengers and pedestrians will be fundamental to the evolution of AVs over the next decade. The best way to ensure that AVs and inhabitants can interact and co-exist safety within densely populated areas is to review and re-engineer city centres and the variety of transportation solutions that serve them.

The majority of today’s cities have been designed to prioritise ease of access for vehicles, not for pedestrians. However, in an era of rapid growth for cities across the globe, more and more city leaders are re-evaluating who their cities are designed for. While giving cities back to pedestrians might seem like a somewhat radical move, prioritising walkability within cities doesn’t have to mean the elimination of vehicles entirely. Redesigning urban environments to prioritise pedestrians not only improves the flow of people within community spaces but can also open up opportunities for transport innovation in the form of AVs.

AVs are able to provide solutions for a wide range of mobility needs for both people and goods at the appropriate speeds for high footfall areas. Slower speeds, additional levels of redundancy, and reduced reliance on GPS mean that low-speed AVs can function safely in densely populated city centre environments with tall buildings and trees. This can offer inhabitants a short-distance transport option that is not only efficient but also environmentally conscious.

Longer distance higher speed autonomous transportation solutions will also continue to develop further over the coming years in a bid to reduce emissions and ease congestions within cities and the expanding suburbs that surround them. One solution, Autonomous Rapid Transport (ART), presents an exciting opportunity for improving road safety in cities and the surrounding areas. This rapid transport solution, involves a high frequency of AV shuttles operating in segregated road lanes and can offer a more efficient, flexible and frequent service than alternative bus or shuttle offerings while removing the need for a human driver and increasing safety.

How autonomy will impact cities

Autonomous vehicles are already altering the landscape of our cities slowly, and as these solutions get deployed more widely, the change will become increasingly tangible. In cities across the globe, it seems that single occupancy cars remain the default mode of transportation. However, as our cities continue to grow, city planners are increasingly looking for ways to improve walkability and promote transport solutions that are smart, electric and shared.

As urban environments become increasingly pedestrianised, city centres will likely become more compact and walkable, linked by efficient public transport networks and autonomous transport solutions including on-demand ride hailing and shuttle like services. As these services become more readily available, inhabitants will start to use the most time efficient, convenient, and sustainable transport solutions available to them. These options will vary between cities, but the most progressive will likely embrace a number of options, including drones, autonomous shuttles and ride-hailing services, scooter and bike sharing services. As these solutions provide greater convenience to city inhabitants, traditional car ownership will begin to decline, and peer-to-peer services and platforms will rise in popularity.

Investment into autonomous vehicles will undoubtedly continue to rise in the coming years, with a recent report from Intel predicting that the mobility-as-a-service market will scale from $800bn in 2035 to a staggering $7tn by 2050. The Accelerating the Future study also revealed that autonomous vehicles are predicted to save more than 580,000 lives between 2035 and 2045 – highlighting the importance of prioritising safety in any future developments. As the technology that supports autonomous vehicles improves and becomes increasingly more accurate, the applications and prevalence of these vehicles on our roads and in our cities will multiply. While fully autonomous high-speed vehicles are still more than a decade away, low-speed solutions are already beginning to shape the nature of cities, fundamentally altering and improving, the lives of its inhabitants.

Adrian Sussmann, President, COAST Autonomous
Image Credit: Karsten Neglia / Shutterstock