Three trends driving driverless cars

Roll-Royce has unveiled its vision for the driverless car of tomorrow. Chris Carter looks at the three trends spurring development in self-driving cars.


Eleanor will be arriving in the Rolls-Royce 103EX sometime in the 2040s

When, in the late 2040s, you find yourself stretching out in the back of your Rolls-Royce, spare a thought for your driver. Because he won't be there.

This week, the luxury carmaker jumped on the automated bandwagon in unveiling its first self-driving concept car, the 103EX. But you'll have to be patient the company's best guess for when the cars will actually enter production is "the late 2040s" .

But one day, far in the future, when you're sat on the "throne" (what Rolls-Royce is calling a car seat, for some reason), you will be able to "luxuriate in the ample space created by the removal of the chauffeur". In place of Parker will be your feet and the disembodied voice of Eleanor Thornton.

Eleanor is, apparently, the voice of the Spirit of Ecstasy, the little silver lady who graces the bonnets of Rollers. It won't be the real Eleanor Thornton, of course. The actress who modelled for the original sculpture died a little over 100years ago, in 1915.

But don't let that put you off.Eleanor will be "digitally connected to every aspect of her owners' lives". She will be your virtual assistant, organising your diary, picking up your dry-cleaning, and buying the Valentine's present you forgot all about. And of course, she will be driving you to wherever it is you need to be in the late 2040s. You can meet her in this Youtube video.

It all goes to show that the three themes of artificial intelligence (AI), automation, and the reduction of emissions are coming together to paint a picture of the world in 20 to 30 years' time. I think we're past the point now where self-driving cars can be written off as a wouldn't it be nice, but it'll never happen'.

What's driving driverless cars

Robots in the workplace have already captured the popular imagination, and Eleanor is just the latest expression of that. Google has already invested millions in its driverless cars and racked up over 1.6 million miles. And as Martin Robbins points out in The Guardian, many of the newest models of cars already on the road have so many "semi-autonomous" features, that they're practically self-driving anyway.

That can lull you into a false sense of security, as one driver who was in an accident conceded: "Yes, I could have reacted sooner, but when the car slows down correctly 1,000 times, you trust it to do it the next time too."

Can we rely on driverless cars to get it right every time? Perhaps it'sno wonder that in the last Queen's speech, it was announced that compulsory insurance cover will be extended to accidents where the car, as opposed to the driver, is at fault, notes Julia Kollewe in the same paper. Not that Eleanor would ever put a foot wrong, of course, but at least she can rest easy. This month saw the launch of Britain's first driverless car policy.

As for cutting car emissions, this week also saw Volkswagen, the arch-villain in the car emissions scandal, announce a "major push towards electrification, mobility, and self-driving cars", says the FT's Patrick McGee. If you're going green, why not extend the technology to go driverless too?

So, that's the future. AI, automation, and the drive to cut fuel emissions will shape the car industry for years to come. If there was ever a company that at the moment encapsulates all three, it's taxi-hailing app Uber.

What's in it for Uber?

On Tuesday, its chief products officer, Jeff Holden, took to the stage in San Francisco to explain how driverless cars were a major project for Uber, whose stated goal is to provide cheap and reliable transport to everyone. "The way you do that ultimately, is you have to have the lowest possible price and highest possible reliability", said Holden. "Driverless enables us to do this kind of price point."

While Eleanor is still a couple of decades away from picking you up, Holden sees driverless cars as being a little nearer in time, notes Melia Robertson on Tech Insider. "Uber's self-driving cars are coming sooner than you think'."

So much sooner, in fact, that analysts IHS Automotive has had to update itspredictions for how many self-driving cars will be on the road, according to Nick Jaynes on website Mashable. Thanks to "increased research and development", IHS now reckons 21 million driverless cars will have been sold worldwide by 2035. That's up from the 11.8 million it predicted just two and a half years ago bad news for those who make their living driving cars.

MoneyWeek regular Dominic Frisby took a recent look at how driverless cars could be the biggest industry disruptor we've yet seen. Check it out here.

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