Drive or be driven: automotive autonomy and the world of ACES

Some prefer to drive, others to be driven. Soon, we may not have a choice…

In one world, a hatted, well-dressed chauffeur pulls the car around, springing from the front seat to get the door for their charge. In another, a retrofitted exhaust pipe and squealing tyres deafen anyone within a five mile radius as “Big Dave” does doughnuts in the local supermarket car park. But the gulf between these distinctly different social experiences is closing. And rapidly.

Vehicle automation is now reality. It’s in your cruise control, lane departure assist and automatic braking. Advanced driver-assistance systems (ADAS) are fairly commonplace on new cars in the market today. Tesla Autopilot is arguably the market leader in this arena, boasting some seriously gnarly tech, driving its owners around whilst they play Asteroids and occasionally look up at the road — Okay, you can’t play games in a Tesla whilst the car is moving, but you get the point… But what is it? What is automation? What is happening to the world of mobility? What does it mean for driving as we know it? Well, the automotive industry calls it ‘ACES’.

Surprise, surprise, it is an acronym. Autonomous. Connected. Electric. Shared. ACES. This is what the automotive industry thinks the motoring world will look like in the future, and car manufacturers are investing millions in it. Tesla paved the way with the original Roadster in 2008 — you know, the same car Elon Musk fired into freaking space blaring out David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” on the Falcon Heavy Test Flight — and other manufacturers have been trying to emulate the Roadster’s success ever since (by the way, a new one comes out this year). Electric vehicles are now commonplace. Who would have thought the cars of 2020 would share the same DNA as a milk float from the 90s.

Out of all of these concepts (Autonomous, Connected, Electric, Shared), Electric is arguably the most mature. Car manufacturers who do not explore some form of electrification are doomed to fail in the coming decade. Of course, there will always be a market for an Internal Combustion Engine (ICE, another acronym for you), but legislation and technology is leading us down the merry path to full automotive electrification. Jaguar has come on leaps and bounds, in that regard, with the phenomenal I-PACE (a real contender to the Tesla Model S and £18,000 cheaper) and their push towards an electrified brand. They also have grounds to celebrate their new lease of electrified life, with a sterling collaboration with one of the other leaders in automotive electrification, BMW. Both announced in June 2019 that they would be joining forces to develop next generation Electric Drive Units (EDUs, and another acronym). Who doesn’t want a BMW i8 with Jaguar handling?

But what’s the catch? What’s wrong with electrification and battery-powered cars? The answer has always been range. It seems that this is becoming less of a problem now. The divisive new CyberTruck from Tesla boasts 500+ miles for the tri-motor AWD option on its website. That is a lot of truck to haul around for 500+ miles. Jaguar, too, have been stretching their already admirable range of 250+ miles through Software Over The Air updates using development data from their I-PACE eTROPHY league. Clever or what?

Jaguar’s Software Over The Air updates brings us nicely into the world of Connected cars. Yes, this means cars with SIM cards using villainous 5G data to download software updates (although you can just park it on the drive and login to the WiFi, just sayin’), but it also means vehicles that talk to each other. Our world will be less Mario Kart and more Ocado warehouse (if you don’t know what the Ocado robotic warehouse technology looks like, check out this BBC articlerad stuff). Bumper cars and scam insurance claims will be a thing of the past. Cars will know the location of other cars and be able to adapt accordingly. Cool and scary in equal measure.

But what’s the point unless the car is in control? That’s where Autonomous comes in. There are five (yes, five) different levels of autonomy, according to the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE).

  • Level 0 – no automation (think Herbie)
  • Level 1 – Cruise Control, basically…
  • Level 2Adaptive Cruise Control, Lane Assist (steering and acceleration)
  • Level 3 – Environmental detection: cars themselves make informed decisions
  • Level 4 – If something goes wrong, the car can resolve it. Optional override.
  • Level 5 – battery-powered KITT from Knight Rider with no steering wheel, no override and software updates from SkyNet.

Interestingly, no car manufacturers are rated to Level 3 or above yet. Partly due to legislation, and partly due to capability. Tesla argues they’re ready to gear up to level >9,000 as and when the legislation passes. Audi have stated that their new A8L Saloon (what a car) is capable of Level 3 autonomous driving, with it’s Pre-Sense system that tightens seat belts, closes windows and scares the living daylights out of you before you crash. It evens lifts up to protect the driver/passengers in the event of a side impact.

Whilst we’re still some years away from Level 5 autonomy (where cars are akin to Max, the spaceship, from Flight of the Navigator) some automotive suppliers are developing ‘Cockpits of the Future‘ in anticipation of this post-Mad Maxian battery-powered world (guzzoline, anyone?). And that world is not far away. With the British Government looking to ban Internal Combustion Engines by 2040 or earlier, this future is actually more the distant present.

And then there’s Shared mobility, the final element of ACES. Car manufacturers expect that in the near future vehicles will stop being commodities, bought and sold, and become ‘shared’ means of transportation. Car ownership is declining in today’s world and this is expected to continue. More and more people are using taxis (AKA Uber!) for transportation. Leasing and car ‘subscriptions’, too, are becoming more commonplace — see: Jaguar Land Rover’s Carpe subscription platform. In a world of Level 5 autonomy, the impetus to own a car, to drive a car, may dwindle. Of course, those (un)fortunate enough to live in the middle of nowhere may find themselves having to own a vehicle, but the urbanite city-dwellers will undoubtedly find themselves ‘sharing’ vehicles more and more.

Good or bad, the automotive industry has embraced ACES with both arms (and legs, full-body hug style). We, as a driving community, will have to go full Bear Grylls: Adapt, Improvise, Overcome. Autonomous vehicles will become a part of life. Electric vehicles already are, especially in more liberal countries such as Norway. You can update your car whilst it is parked on the drive today. And Uber is booming. The ACES lifestyle already has some pretty deep roots in our society. The question is whether “Big Dave” (and the rest of us who actually enjoy driving) will accept this change? Will he (read: we) be happy sharing a seat in a car without a steering wheel with the same exec who, twenty years ago, had a chauffeur?

Well, at least electric cars are better for the environment. Wait, what?

How do you feel about an autonomous future? Are you happy to be the ‘driven’, or are you forever the ‘driver’?

Let us know in the comments!

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