Will manual driving be outlawed by 2050?

“Approximately 1,3 million people die each year as a result of road traffic crashes. Between 20 and 50 million more people suffer non-fatal injuries, with many incurring a disability as a result of their injury.” That’s what the World Health Organisation (WHO) says.

Autonomous vehicles (AVs) are supposed not to crash. And they’re getting better every year. “Eventually, manual driving could become completely illegal on public roads in the interest of safety, as soon as 2050,” an updated report of technology consultancy firm IDTechEx says.

Manual driving relegated to sport

Not that manual driving is going to disappear, says IDTechEx, “but it may be relegated to a sport, reserved for racing and track days.” It might come in tiny steps, as cities can ban cars from certain parts of the town and only allow autonomous vehicles to drive among pedestrians and cyclists.

As a matter of fact, sources close to the former mayor of London Boris Johnson (now Premier), say at that time he played with the idea to ban cars completely from large parts of London and allow only autonomous cars to stop traffic fatalities and the huge costs that come with it. But those days (we’re talking 2008 -2016), fully autonomous cars were still science fiction.

Why 2050? IDTechEx says it analyzed data about autonomous disengagement from the California DMV, the number of times the human driver had to intervene in AVs running test kilometers in several pilots.

30 000 miles without disengagement

Most advanced players in America like Google’s Waymo and GM’s Cruise are currently noting 30 000 miles (48 000 km) between ‘disengagements’, a number that increases by a factor of two every year.

The US put forward a mobility demand of three trillion miles without disengagement for AVs to be considered really safe. At this pace, this could be reached as soon as 2046, with fewer than one collision per year. To compare: American drivers averaged 400 000 miles (643 000 km) between crashes in 2020.

Unpredictable human error

Although skeptics say, the fully autonomous car – SAE Level 5 – where a driver is completely obsolete will never be possible due to the complexity of today’s traffic and unpredictable human behavior. The latter could almost be eliminated if only autonomous vehicles are allowed.

According to the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA), 6 420 000 auto accidents occur in the US annually, costing $230 billion. And 98% are due to human error. Globally, the WHO states, road traffic crashes cost most countries 3% of their gross domestic product.

And the main causes for casualties are again mostly human-related with speeding, driving under the influence, distracted driving, non-use of seat belts, child restraints, or helmets and unsafe road infrastructure, and unsafe vehicles to worsen the statistics.

Banned from driving?

“The assumption is that the technology will save lives and not using it is criminally negligent. Would this progression be so unusual?” IDTechEx asks in the press release of its updated report Autonomous Cars, Robotaxis & Sensors 2022-2042.

“Technology has always caused changes to the laws on how we operate vehicles; as vehicles became faster, speed limits were introduced. When mobile phones emerged, their use in vehicles had to be outlawed; as autonomous drivers outperform humans, will we be banned from driving?”

Currently at SAE Level 2

But we’re not there yet. Today, IDTechEx says itself. Most cars come with Level 2 of autonomous functions, Advanced Driving Assistance Systems (ADAS). But the industry is ready since 2017 for Level 3 with ‘situational automation’ with the driver not needing to keep his eyes on the road all the time. It’s mostly regulation that keeps them from rolling it out.

Some, like Waymo just did by introducing a new fleet of autonomous taxis in certain parts of San Francisco, are pushing to Level 4, where the driver becomes obsolete in geo-fenced, well-defined conditions.

AV revolution to start in 2023

Given the current state of trials and existing plans for further expansion from key players, IDTechEx believes 2023 will be the start of the AV revolution, as autonomous driving systems will be on par with human safety levels by then.

It will be accompanied by “massive opportunities in the automotive sensors industry”. Progress will be made in high-definition cameras (including infrared and event-based detection), radar, LiDAR, with the latter becoming increasingly cheaper. Supporting technologies such as connectivity and teleoperation are another domain of growth.

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