Welcome again to The Driverless Commute, a weekly digest presented by the global law firm Dentons that clocks the most important technical, legal and regulatory developments shaping the path to autonomy.
1. Whither the sedan?
Ford Motor Co. stunned competitors and analysts when it announced this week that it would discontinue its sedan offerings for the North American market, where seven of ten cars sold are crossovers, sport utility vehicles or pickup trucks.
The market-rattling move would eliminate some of the legacy car maker’s best-known offerings, including the Focus and the Taurus, but pointedly saves an iconic muscle car and a hatchback.
Here’s why it makes sense through the lens of autonomy:
- Even as its small- and mid-sized car lineup was wiped wholesale, Ford spared the Mustang, a nod to the budding counter cultural movement of driving-as-a-pleasure as automotive autonomy becomes more commonplace.
- Gas prices are historically low, even as they’ve recently risen, but Ford’s new larger-than-competitors lineup could leave it vulnerable to market fluctuations on crude oil. Its decision to abandon small cars ensures Ford remains committed to alternative propulsion, like electrification, which analysts believe will be critical to a successful driverless future.
- Truly autonomous cars will not resemble the human-operated models on roads today. They might be small, compartmentalized units for last-mile delivery or ride-sharing, or large pods for overnight travel. Ford’s lineup shakeup promises to be the first of many for the industry.
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Some eight million semi- to fully-autonomous cars (Levels 3-5) will be shipped in 2025, according to new analysis by market research firm ABI.
That sounds low to us. Hear us out.
For perspective, nearly 95 million cars were sold globally last year. Even assuming those numbers hold static for the next seven years, partially-automated models would account for just 8.5 percent of sales.
For years, the biggest hurdles to full-scale deployment were computing powers and the costs of LiDAR, for which a single array once exceeded $70,000. Both of those problems have largely been resolved, which is why players like Waymo are capable today of making single purchases of 20,000 autonomous Jaguar SUVs.
Then there’s sleepers like Tesla, whose current cars have already been running in so-called shadow mode to capture literal mountains of data for the next update to its existing Level 2.5 offering.
And don’t forget the significant role played by China, which is forecasted to own a quarter of the global auto market by 2025. The PRC has set a goal that semi autonomous cars will hold 50 percent of sales by 2020, and that highly autonomous cars will take 15 percent of sales by 2025. Assuming even marginal growth, China could account for some 4.1 million autonomous cars by 2025, according to our number-crunching.
3. Be Smart
Our best-in-industry intelligence service, the Console, marries machine learning algorithms with human analysis to create comprehensive, real-time advisories on everything autonomy.
It monitors, digests, and packages everything of consequence to your business: television and radio chatter, social media scoops, legislative and regulatory activity, legal filings, acquisitions, and white papers.
A service of Dentons’ 3D Global Affairs, which yokes traditional legal capabilities with government affairs, corporate competitive analysis and strategic communications, the Console mines the public record to populate an easy-to-navigate platform.
A bipartisan US Senate initiative to allow for the testing and sale of autonomous vehicles that don’t adhere to existing federal safety regulations (like conventional operating controls) still faces an uncertain path months after its introduction, even as global rivals have moved swiftly to adopt comprehensive national standards and testing frameworks.
Similar legislation was approved with unanimous consent last year by the House of Representatives, but a handful of Democratic senators have blocked its passage in the upper chamber over privacy, cybersecurity and safety concerns.
More than 100 self-driving firms and boosters recently signed a letter pressing the Senate to pass the measure before the Memorial Day holiday (May 28), but the legislative calendar is growing short and the midterm elections are drawing near.
Our guess: Don’t expect any movement, especially in the wake of recent fatal crashes involving driverless cars, until the next Congress.