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Self-driving: What business leaders need to know right now

News on self-driving cars alternate between the good, the bad and the catastrophic. It’s hard to make out where we stand between all the hyperbolic media messages.
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In terms of setting the record right, we should start with understanding the gradations between assisted and fully autonomous vehicles. There is a generally accepted scale that goes from level 0 to level 5, first published by the automotive standardisation body, SAE International (formerly Society of Automotive Engineers).

How to evaluate the vehicle’s autonomy

Level 0 – no automation;
Level 1 – assisting the driver with elements such as steering or deceleration;
Level 2 – partial automation of both steering and acceleration and deceleration;
Level 3 – conditional automation, whereby the vehicle’s systems are able to perform all aspects of dynamic driving, with human driver intervention upon request;
Level 4 – high automation, able to manage all aspects of dynamic driving, even if human driver does not intervene; and
Level 5 – full automation whereby the vehicle’s systems manage dynamic driving under all conditions that would otherwise be managed by a human driver.

Where are we now?

In terms of where we are this year, for new passenger cars, level 2 (partial automation) is now commonplace with some variations, including most notably on self-parking capabilities. This year, we ought to see the first level 3 cars being produced and deployed (Audi A8, which is supposed to be autonomous for up to 37 mph).

However, there remain regulatory issues (in the UK, at least) to be ironed out before self-driving cars are used on the road at full potential. Tesla, the most iconic manufacturer in this space, is essentially at level 2, with higher levels already installed but not switched on. Tesla is intending to roll out level 3 cars in 2019.

Many premier automotive manufacturers are working on a version of the technology, and more or less participating in the narrative around the prospects and challenges. The bold Elon Musk, Tesla’s CEO, is on record as saying that a level 5 Tesla will be available in two years’ time.

While self-driving technology will shake up public transportation, the biggest impact of autonomous driving technology has arguably been on trucking, where tech companies like Uber and Waymo have been taking a lead, although Daimler and Volvo are also fast working on robo trucks. And yet, above the immense technical challenges lie societal brakes.

Even if you don’t own a car, it’s worth taking a spin in a friend’s brand new car or hiring a topline car to check out the extent of the technology. It does take time to get used to letting go. And, among the challenges along the way (especially with levels 3 and 4), a major question mark sits on the human being’s ability to know how to be only partially responsible for his/her driving.

In other words, knowing how to be on call at a moment’s notice when the autonomous car hands back control to the human driver.

Gauging the impact

In terms of the impact of self-driving cars on business, I like to divide it into three categories:

1. Directly in the car business (automotive manufacturer, parts, rental, etc.);
2. An associated business, either complementary or substitutive (garage, parking, public transportation, etc.); and
3. Another type of business.

Companies that are directly affected are aware of the revolution, but are reacting at very different paces. Associated business segments will need to adapt. One of the key determinants of success will depend on the types of collaborations and partnerships that are set up.

Self-driving for the regular (non-automotive) business

Meanwhile, even companies that are not immediately affected should be considering the potential impacts of autonomous cars, vans and lorries. If your business provides company cars, when/if should the fleet move to self-driving cars? If someone on your staff were to decide to get a self-driving car, at what point should driving between appointments be considered work time?

For the logistics team, when should you start to insist on deliveries by autonomous lorries? Otherwise, it’s very likely that autonomous cars (in conjunction with the sharing economy) will likely reshape the way we commute, too. From an ethical and HR function perspective, there will be many new things to consider.

One of the most phenomenal components of the autonomous car is that it’s a computer that runs the car and therefore, by being connected to the internet, it can undergo an upgrade and/or transformation with a simple click of a button. Yet, as we have seen with Tesla recently, the issues of the hardware and associated data becoming obsolete are a considerable menace to overcome.

Imagine having an iPhone 1 and wanting to add a fancy new app that needs 1gb of storage and a large amount of RAM (random access memory). These are exciting times in the automotive world. We will see a major shake-up in the industry with many new entrants, and probably the creation of a host of new usages.

Minter Dial and Caleb Storkey are the authors of Futureproof: How to Get Your Business Ready for the Next Disruption (winner of a Business Book Award 2018) – which is out now in paperback and ebook.

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