North America Will Adopt AVs First, Forecast Finds

North America will lead the world in adopting autonomous vehicles, followed by Europe, but China will surpass both after 2027, research company Wards Intelligence finds.

By 2030, almost one in ten new cars sold — more than 10 million units per year — will be self-driving, Wards predicted in a report released April 23. But don’t expect to buy your own AV for a while: The technology will appear first in commercial vehicles, Wards finds.

The predictions in the Wards report show how an all-self-driving world may be farther off than some futuristic visions imply. Particularly since two widely covered fatal crashes last month that highlighted potential dangers of automation, bold promises of safer travel have come up against questions about what’s really possible and when. AV makers may be better off winning over small segments of the mobility market first rather than taking on the very notion of human driving.

That’s how Wards predicts things will go.

In the near term, the best business case is likely to be in commercial vehicles equipped with Level 4 autonomy, which covers autonomous driving only in specified areas, the report says. Commercial vehicles such as shuttles and delivery vans often have regular routes and support staff, and they don’t have to deal with all possible road or traffic conditions.

Ride-hailing companies will also be early adopters. They will launch small-scale and pilot services using AVs in 2019, but self-driving rides won’t start to be ubiquitous until around 2025, the report said.

And while industry has pretty well tackled Level 4 automation already, it will take at least ten years to introduce Level 5, which allows vehicles to travel any road without a backup driver, pedals or steering wheel, Wards said.

The report, which draws on interviews with key executives, finds leading companies in the field have top-notch technology, aggressive electric-vehicle strategies and strong partnerships. Waymo, General Motors, Volkswagen, Daimler, Nvidia and Continental are among the leaders, Wards concludes.

Another recent forecast by ABI Research pegged shipments of autonomous consumer vehicles at 8 million per year by 2025. That’s counting cars with Level 3 and 4 automation, which still require a driver in some cases, and Level 5.

Like Wards, ABI said getting to Level 5 will require a whole other level of technology. In this case, that means expensive, mechanical Lidar systems. These are the “coffee can” units seen on top of self-driving cars today. They spin around and shoot lasers all the way around the vehicle, bouncing the beams off surrounding objects to build a picture of what’s nearby.

While there are now smaller, solid-state Lidar systems, they won’t be good enough for fully driverless cars in the next few years, ABI predicted. This could mean Level 5 autonomy will be limited to special vehicles like robotaxis, because only companies that have a pressing profit motive to eliminate drivers will be willing to pay the price of these expensive cars, the company announced.

The good news is that solid-state Lidar will quickly get less expensive, ranging from about $200 to $750 by 2020, ABI says. At those prices, automakers will be able to put multiple solid-state Lidar units around their premium cars, putting Level 3 or Level 4 automation within reach of car buyers.

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