Lack of huge public spending will kill off autonomous vehicles

With the UK’s roads being among the worst in Europe, there seems little chance that the driverless car will ever be a mass-market solution despite the technological capabilities that have existed within car manufacturers for several years, said Honda (UK) CEO Philip Crossman.

Yet he admitted that the Japanese manufacturer will have to face up to new challenges as a heavily engineering focused company and the world’s largest manufacturer of engines.

Speaking exclusively to TU Automotive, Crossman said: “This area is probably quite a challenge for us because, while we’re very good at the engineering side, this is a whole new world for us.

“There are many, many people coming into this environment who are not traditional car makers. Now, whether they can compete on scale, we just don’t know.”

He cited an example where an early Honda test mule could be driven on adaptive cruise control and automated steering in rush hour traffic more than a decade ago.

“The technology for autonomous cars is actually quite old and most car manufacturers could have a car drive round a race track without a driver in it,” Crossman said: “I remember ten years ago taking an RAF pilot down the M4 at 5 o’clock at night in a car where he could take his hands off the steering wheel and the car would keep its speed and direction without hitting the car in front.

“The real challenge of autonomous cars is how you feed them into the existing car parks? I think the telematics technology we have now is a starting point for development over the next 15 years. The next thing we have to do is to make that technology compulsory on every vehicle. This would create an industry standard and then, maybe, you could start making some progress.

“The question is, however, how much more of this can you get in a car because you still have the issues of driving. Maybe it’s more a case of entertainment for people and making the car safer which is important.”

Crossman insisted that any move towards the autonomous vehicle would require controversial legislation compelling car owners to adopt the technology.

He explained: “We can’t simply go from where we are to having an autonomous car – that would be absolute chaos. Collectively, the UK sees 2.5M new cars each year coming onto the roads so that will take 10 years before you have a third of the car park as autonomous cars.

“On top of that, the infrastructure you would need to change all of that. If you can imagine a road train travelling at speed a few feet apart to ease congestion and reduce travel times, getting to there from where we are at the moment is going to take a huge amount of effort from authorities other than car manufacturers. At the moment I can’t see how we can do much more on it except for entertainment and continuing to make cars safer and safer.”

Crossman said only government legislation and massive investment of public funds could cope with the ideal of autonomous vehicles having an impact on the mass market mobility.

He said: “Commerce will develop the technology but how you are going to apply that to cars on the road is going to take legislation changes. Let’s face it, right now we struggle to get our roads repaired properly so how are you going to get all that technology built into our roads, junctions designed for cars to come off the autonomous highway properly and controlling traffic flow?

“It’s all a great concept idea and you might want this as soon as you can but with such a huge level of investment, who is going to fund it? That’s the worry.”

Crossman believes the two biggest players eyeing up a slice of the automotive cake, Apple and Google, can pose challenges for existing manufacturers and will especially influence the future telematics technology strategies.

He said: “Apple’s stand against cooperating with MirrorLink could be one of the first indications that they are seriously contemplating entering the automotive market. It’s a huge opportunity for them and they are definitely commercially driven and bright enough that at some point they want to change their business, particularly if some of their competitors start getting into the market.

“You only have to look back on the history of mobile phones and it wasn’t so long ago that Nokia ruled the world on handsets. All that came to an end within the space of five years or so. Marvellous as Apple’s current earning power is, it could also happen to them because people are so promiscuous with new technology and things can change so quickly.”

Crossman is convinced most car manufacturers would be backing a mobile device solution for telematics and be happier buying in technology from OEM suppliers.

He said: “My guess would be mobile platforms would be the eventual solution because, as car makers, how much of that technology do we really want to get into? If a solution is available on the open market, the best thing we can do is buy in whatever best fits with our customers while we concentrate on building cars and the engineering behind them.”

Right now Honda have bigger medium-term fish to fry in the shape of alternative fuels such as hydrogen fuel cells using fuel generated on a micro level at service station or even households, similar to its own hydrogen generating plan run by BOC at the Swindon factory.

Crossman said: “To me, the bigger gains for us have been in engine technology and how soon can get hydrogen powered cars on our roads. Also, there’s the fixing of the problem of producing hydrogen at service stations so you don’t have to transport it. We already have technology where you can generate hydrogen at a domestic level, fuel the car in the morning and drive off to work.”

— Paul Myles is a seasoned automotive journalist based in London. Follow him on Twitter @Paulmyles_

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