UK Transport Minister Mark Harper has said self-driving cars could be on some British roadways by 2026, but a recent report from LexisNexis lays out why mainstream adoption of autonomous vehicles (AVs) is likely still “on the distant horizon.”
The report, based on patent activity by automakers and tech companies, notes strides have been made toward the potential impacts autonomous driving could have in reshaping urban mobility, reducing accidents, and revolutionizing transportation logistics, LexisNexis wrote.
Artificial intelligence (AI), vehicle connectivity, and smart infrastructure all play roles in autonomous driving, and progress in one field fuels advancements in others, according to the report.
“There has been some development in the field going back several years, however, this only started to take off just after 2015. We do not only see an increase in patents around Autonomous Driving, but we also see that the strength of these patents is developing even stronger…”
The top 25 patent owners in the field of autonomous driving is Baidu, followed by Alphabet. Both are leading tech giants from China and the U.S., respectively. Following are GM, Ford, and Toyota.
“While autonomous driving is currently led by the tech industry, the automotive players still have a significant hand in the technology development,” the report states. “[A] consistent pattern emerges: traditional automotive players exhibit a lower competitive impact, whereas tech giants like Alphabet demonstrate a higher competitive impact.
“This pattern isn’t unexpected; conventional auto companies focus on technology applicable in their vehicles today, whereas tech firms channel profits from their core markets into future investments.”
The research was split into three subcategories — Smart: Intelligence and Algorithms, Security: Safety and Security, and Systems Experience:
“Smart” includes core AV technology such as awareness of surroundings, processing data, object tracking, mapping, and controlling the system. Development in the space has been recent and rapid, and Baidu’s position at the top is relatively recently achieved, overtaking Alphabet around 2020, according to LexisNexis. Alphabet continues to have a steady increase year-over-year.
“Security” concerns all safety and security systems including braking, evasion, planning, emergency operation, and supporting sensors.
“Experience” applies to passenger experience and interaction with the system including design, interaction methods, infotainment systems, and other communication.
LexisNexis found in its research that smart technology has developed the most and security efforts have been progressing less in recent years.
“Development over time provides a view of which of these companies is more consistently innovating in the Experience sub-technology. Ford’s position, while continuing an upward development is largely a result of an increase around 2016.
“Conversely, Alphabet and GM have more long-holding stable increases which may overtake Ford in the coming years. Though all the other
players have upward developments, they are sporadic and limited in the scale of the upward trend.”
Overall, LexisNexis notes a common pattern: address the core problem, ensure safety, and eventually make it accessible to the average consumer.
“In mature technologies, innovation often far surpasses the initial problem, especially in enhancing user experience. However, in the context of autonomous driving technology, we do not witness this trend. The disparity suggests that there is substantial work left before this technology can be widely commercialized and readily available to the public.
“The crux of achieving truly autonomous vehicles appears to lie in processing and decision-making capabilities. While vehicle control and robust sensory input are crucial, without the ability to process information and make sound decisions, these elements become redundant. This aspect represents the cutting edge of autonomous driving, explaining why numerous major tech players dominate leading positions in the field.”
Lastly, LexisNexis found that substantial progress has been made in digitizing vehicles to prep them for autonomous operation, and in enhancing environmental sensing for informed decision-making as well as adding safety measures.
“However, completely replacing human drivers with machines remains a challenge,” the report states. “Leading tech and automotive companies are vigorously working on both hardware and software, aiming to create a system capable of taking over driving duties.”
In Britain, a legal framework for AV operation should be in place by the end of 2024, according to Harper. Such a framework hasn’t been established in the U.S., though many groups and legislators have called for it.