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By Matthew O’Byrne White, VP Engineering & Green Economy, IDA Ireland

Regulatory developments are opening a wealth of new opportunities for automotive manufacturers around the world to trial and refine a range of self-driving features. For example, the UK government’s plans to permit cars featuring automated lane-keeping systems on UK roads and France’s fully driverless shuttle bus mark major advances in the wider use of self-driving vehicles.

Automotive manufacturers today face an uphill task, not only in terms of spearheading the technological innovations that power self-driving vehicles, but also in meeting stringent safety standards and earning the confidence of consumers and regulators.

To address these challenges and realise the immense potential for self-driving vehicles to transform the transportation landscape, automotive manufacturers must rethink traditional approaches to innovation with help from the wider technology industry.

Reimagining our roads

Currently, Level 2 semi-autonomous capabilities—including self-parking, lane-keep, and hands-free navigation through traffic jams to assist drivers—offer the highest level of autonomy available in a commercial car.

But by 2025, an estimated one in five cars in developed regions of the world will offer one or more Level 2 driving features. Even emerging countries will see a proliferation of vehicles with Level 1 safety-related enhancements such as adaptive cruise control, which keeps the vehicle at a safe distance behind another car.

Compared to privately owned self-driving cars, the pace of these developments will be far greater for commercial fleets, and geo-fenced fleet mobility services are already emerging in various countries.

For instance, China is projected to lead the usership model of Level 4 robotaxis that are fully equipped to monitor the environment and perform all driving tasks in some situations, by operating paid services for the public within predefined geographies.

Driverless ride-hailing services could cost up to 70 per cent less, bringing massive savings to both consumers and fleet operators. But to achieve these benefits, automotive manufacturers must first overcome various distinct challenges.

An uphill task

The staggering scale of innovation required means that advancements in self-driving vehicles cannot rely on automotive hardware and electronics alone.

Firstly, before successfully commercialising self-driving cars, automotive companies need to secure regulatory approval and obtain the necessary permits by ensuring all safety standards have been met.

As self-driving technologies for commercial use advance toward Level 3 capabilities—conditional driving automation where the driver is only required to remain constantly attentive and prepared to take back control when required—the challenge of addressing every potential vehicle use case and safety issue becomes exponentially demanding.

Whereas Level 2 semi-autonomous capabilities are limited to less complex driving environments such as parking spaces, Level 3 features will rely on advanced data analytics to help vehicle systems assess and respond to highly variable conditions such as changing weather and rural road boundaries.

Secondly, self-driving fleets would be deployed in large numbers, making the task of monitoring and managing connected vehicle operations highly complex. For example, Cruise, General Motors’ autonomous vehicle subsidiary, aims to build a fleet of up to 1 million self-driving vehicles by 2030.

As more self-driving cars make their way to public roads, drivers, regulators and road users will also need to adapt to a hybrid transportation landscape that is likely to dominate for an extended period of time before conventional vehicles are completely phased out.

Automotive manufacturers, fleet operators or OEMs investing in autonomous mobility services face a steep learning curve in multiple respects—from exhaustive use-case testing and solving complex data science challenges to achieving regulatory compliance.

Innovation: a non-zero-sum game

The next stage in self-driving innovation will therefore require expertise across different verticals, ranging from the best-in-class hardware and operating systems to sophisticated sensor and camera technologies and cloud-based data analytics. To capture an early mover advantage, it is essential for automotive companies to tap on a larger cross-disciplinary ecosystem.

In Ireland, automotive companies have been able to tap into the country’s rich technology ecosystem. For example, Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) has been working closely with global software, mobility and telecoms companies and the University of Limerick to pioneer the Future Mobility Campus Ireland. This smart city hub, supported by local councils and IDA Ireland (Ireland’s inward investment and development agency), powers self-driving electric vehicle (EV) trials across 12km of public roads shared with other cars, pedestrians and cyclists.

Equipped with sensors and facilities to harness accurate location, vehicle and environmental data, the collaborative testbed simulates a variety of real-world road conditions and traffic scenarios to effectively trial new self-driving EV technologies.

In exchange for providing expertise to advance JLR’s research into connected autonomous EVs, partnering companies and the University of Limerick also benefit from a shared pool of hardware and other resources, as well as novel research project opportunities. Collaboration of nature creates a win-win situation for all parties.

Paving the way for the future of transportation 

It is no longer enough for traditional automotive companies to streamline their own strategies, capital investments, and product roadmaps to develop and deploy autonomous vehicles in a given region or segment.

A study has projected that the number of Level 2+ autonomous vehicles will reach over 11 million by 2025. A lack of regulatory frameworks and the appeal of high-value propositions and lower cost is likely to encourage OEMs to drive innovation in favour of Level 2+ rather than Level 3 features.

To continue accelerating self-driving vehicle innovation in this decade into Level 3 and beyond, it is crucial for automotive companies to think bigger when it comes to their R&D initiatives. Collaborative innovation with key partners across verticals and in the public sector is likely to be the key factor that distinguishes future market leaders in this field.

As global regulations favouring testing and deployment determine the adoption timeline for consumer markets, it will take the combined effort of an entire innovation ecosystem to maximise the potential for autonomous vehicles to dramatically reshape the transportation landscape.

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