BMW Group confirmed this week that it had become the first international carmaker to obtain the autonomous driving road test licence in China, marking a big step on its path to autonomous driving. This is its Vision Next 100 concept car.Photo: Supplied
JOHANNESBURG - The early stages of a transition to autonomous vehicles (AVs) is under way.

S&P Global Ratings admitted as much in a report released yesterday titled The Road Ahead for Autonomous Vehicles, where it referred to the commercial rollout of “hands-free” features on some premium vehicles this year.

However, S&P believes the mass adoption of driverless AVs is still decades away.

It referred to the pedestrian fatality in March this year by an Uber autonomous test vehicle, adding it highlighted both the significant technical challenges and limitations with this transformative technology, and the many practical, technical and moral questions that needed to be resolved prior to its mass adoption.

S&P said full-scale testing of self-driving vehicles without human control was under way in cities globally by a number of companies.

BMW Group confirmed this week that it had become the first international carmaker to obtain the autonomous driving road test licence in China, marking a big step on its path to autonomous driving.

It officially obtained the Shanghai intelligent connected autonomous driving test licence, issued by the intelligent connected vehicle road test promotion team, consisting of Shanghai's municipal commission of economy and informatisation, Shanghai's municipal public security bureau and Shanghai's municipal transportation commission.

BMW said this achievement underlined its leading role in the development of autonomous driving in the Chinese automotive industry.

BMW Group confirmed this week that it had become the first international carmaker to obtain the autonomous driving road test licence in China, marking a big step on its path to autonomous driving. This is its Vision Next 100 concept car.Photo: Supplied

The test sites in Shanghai currently cover a total distance of about 5.6km, but this was planned to grow quickly over time.

BMW Group said the test fleet was based on the latest BMW 7 Series models, starting with two operating vehicles this month and adding up to seven vehicles by December in China.

S&P believes fully autonomous vehicle penetration would be influenced by and significantly lag of electric vehicles.

It expects the market growth of electric vehicles could approach a 10percent share of US light vehicle sales by 2025 compared to 1.1percent at present, which was behind its forecast of a 25percent share in Europe and 20percent share in China.

S&P has a low and high disruption scenario for the adoption of AVs.

Its low disruption scenario only foresees advanced AVs with a 2percent share of light vehicle sales by 2030, rising to 10percent by 2040.

However, S&P said that should “the revolution” follow their high disruption scenario where AVs comprise a 30percent share of light vehicle sales by 2030 and 50percent by 2050, “the effects on society will be profound and far-reaching”.

“Semi-automated to fully autonomous all electric vehicles share the road - augmented by ride-sharing technologies and TNCs (transport network companies) - are likely to alter how cities are designed, grow and function, affecting where we live and work.

“AVs will introduce life-saving and ultimately labour-saving technologies, while fundamentally altering the movement of people and goods, disrupting business models along the way,” it said.

But S&P stressed that the trajectory of AV growth was complex and unpredictable, because it faced hurdles beyond technology and cost.

It believed the growth of AVs would lag that of electric vehicles, based on the inherent advantages of electric vehicles, including lower maintenance cost, because of fewer moving parts, zero emissions and lower operating costs per kilometre.

While electric vehicle growth was primarily determined by battery cost developments and supporting infrastructure, S&P said AV growth faced many hurdles beyond technology and cost.

These included legal and regulatory developments, consumer acceptance and human behaviour, public opinion on safety and liabilities, and taxation and infrastructure funding.

S&P said the initial growth phase of AVs was likely to lead to more congestion, because conventional cars would have to interact with AVs, which would also likely be regulated in a conservative manner.

“This new dynamic could increase the number of vehicles miles travelled and the use of ride-sharing services. There may also be calls for dedicated lanes or roadways to separate AVs and driver-operated vehicles.

“The behaviour of drivers and pedestrians to AVs, which is just beginning, is difficult to predict,” it said.

S&P added that while AVs would ultimately result in fewer automotive deaths and injuries, it was clear that public opinion would be defined by incidents and casualties during the testing phase.

“Society may have little tolerance for the inevitable road accidents and fatalities caused by AVs. Equally, how insurance companies will adapt the policies they write to take account of driverless cars is presently unknown.

“As AVs become connected to, and ultimately controlled by automated systems, designing cyber-security measures to protect against potential hacking of crash prevention systems, causing them to fail, will be an important factor in customer acceptance and critical in assuring public safety,” it said.

S&P added that the proliferation of AVs would affect travel behaviour and patterns.

Smart vehicles communicating with other vehicles and roadway infrastructure could use real-time traffic data to anticipate what was ahead, make better route choices and synchronise speeds to use shorter headways.

“All of this should result in better use of infrastructure, less vehicle flow breakdown and less congestion,” it said.

S&P also believed that vehicle ownership patterns could change and with more AVs on the road, individual car ownership would face deflationary pressures, because driverless cars served multiple purposes and passengers.

It said there was the possibility of shared or fractional ownership, but believed many people would still want to own a car, resulting in car ownership remaining stable in the US, with potentially fewer vehicles per household, but more households owning a car.

S&P said AVs would have a significant impact on employment down the road, because they could displace a portion of the workforce whose primary jobs was behind the wheel.

The US Department of Commerce estimated last year that 15.5million US workers had jobs that could be affected by AVs, which represented about one in nine workers.

AVs could also displace insurance agents and adjusters, car body repairers and mechanics plus unskilled and semi-skilled jobs related to vehicle parking and traffic enforcement, S&P said.

- BUSINESS REPORT