The automotive industry is on the precipice of an exciting future that will see the convergence of several parallel technologies. The future will be about “ACES”: automated, connected, electrified and shared.

We are well on a journey of escalating levels of automation in vehicles. Currently some 1.8 million new cars are fitted with some form of driver assistance systems (i.e. Levels 1 and 2 automation), whereas the world’s first Level 3-capable car, which offers conditional automation based on specific use cases, will be available later this year. It is anticipated that highly and fully autonomous vehicles, where there is no expectation of the driver taking back the driving task during the entire use case or journey, will be available from 2021.

Meanwhile, the majority of new cars today are, in effect, “connected cars” in some form. Infotainment and telematics services are increasingly popular, the former with private buyers while the latter with fleet and business customers. From this April, new cars will have to be fitted with an eCall system, which automatically informs the emergency services in the event of an accident. In the future, we are likely to see the deployment of vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communications in new cars.

Although plug-in cars command only 1.86% of the new car market at the moment, we are likely to see steeper uptake of ultra-low emission vehicles in the coming years, encouraged not least by the introduction of new models by manufacturers and supportive government policies. To grow the number of ULEVs in the entire UK vehicle fleet – which currently stands at only 132,000 of 39 million vehicles on UK roads – much will depend on how quickly the 3As of ULEV uptake barriers are overcome; range Anxiety, infrastructure Accessibility and product Affordability. Overcoming these will require government and industry to work closely together by setting out realistic policy roadmaps and pragmatic market development measures that encourage motorists and fleets to switch to ULEVs. 

Shared mobility has increased in popularity in recent years, as evidenced by the fact that more than 200,000 people across the UK are now car club members. This will continue to show an uptrend, but its uptake will likely be concentrated in urban centres in the first instance.

A future of ACES is expected to bring a number of economic, social and environmental benefits. Connected and autonomous vehicles, for example, are expected to deliver economic benefits to the UK in the region of £51 billion per year by 2030, of which £16 billion will accrue to adjacent industries such as telecoms, technology, digital services and freight. CAVs are also capable of helping consumers save up to £40 billion through shorter journey times and lower fuel, insurance and parking costs, besides creating 320,000 new jobs in the same period.

Given that 94% of traffic accidents occur due to human error, vehicle automation is expected to prevent 25,000 serious accidents and save 2,500 lives by 2030. Low-speed autonomous emergency braking technology, for example, has led to a 38% reduction in real world rear-end crashes. Based on research published by SMMT, six in 10 people with restricted mobility believe CAVs will improve their quality of life, while 47% of older people say CAVs will help them more easily fulfil day-to-day tasks, such as grocery shopping.

CAVs alone are capable of enabling more efficient journeys through optimised speeds and platooning, thus improving traffic flow and efficiency while reducing fuel consumption and emissions. A government-commissioned study suggests a 12% improvement in delays and a 21% improvement in journey time reliability on urban roads in peak traffic periods even with low numbers of autonomous vehicles on the roads. Another study shows that intelligent transport systems can potentially reduce CO2 emissions by up to 20% by connecting vehicles with each other and with infrastructure. These environmental benefits will only be multiplied when CAVs are electrified.

Four key challenges must be overcome to realise the benefits that ACES can bring: technology, infrastructure, policy and regulation, and public acceptance. Although fully autonomous vehicles are some years away, efforts are currently underway to develop and test self-driving systems using sensor fusion and artificial intelligence that ultimately do not need driver intervention. Innovation in battery technology holds the key to overcoming range limitations and lowering the cost of ULEVs.

While the technology challenge is effectively an engineering challenge that will be overcome given time, tackling the infrastructure challenge requires genuine multi-stakeholder collaboration underpinned by political will. Delivering a national network of electric vehicle charging infrastructure, for example, requires a nationally coordinated approach involving Government, local authorities, the automotive industry, the energy industry, fuel forecourt operators and fleet operators. This is to ensure we end up with the right types of chargers at the right places – not just an ever-increasing number of chargepoints, given that, after all, we already have more than 14,000 public connectors, amongst the highest in Europe. While the automotive industry welcomes 5G communications technology, what connected vehicles need is better mobile coverage throughout the entire UK road network, as many connected vehicle services can already be adequately deployed on 3G and LTE 4G. However, currently only 48% of the entire UK road network has full 3G mobile coverage, while the figure for 4G is only 18%.

Policy and regulatory measures must be realistic and practical, to encourage the take up of new technology without necessarily and artificially curtailing the viability of existing technology, which continues to serve a purpose for millions of motorists. For example, measures announced in the Autumn Budget affecting diesel vehicles send at best confusing and, at worst, altogether wrong messages to consumers. Suboptimal policy measures only serve to hamper fleet renewal and may further worsen global warming in the short-to-medium term. Consumer incentives remain key to driving uptake of ULEVs. The sharp drop in uptake in other markets where incentives were halted or greatly reduced (e.g. Netherlands, Denmark, Hong Kong) shows that incentive schemes cannot be withdrawn when a technology is still very much in its infancy. The Government must ensure we adopt harmonised international regulation as well as introduce the necessary national regulatory reforms if we are to become a leading market for the deployment of autonomous vehicles. The Automated and Electric Vehicles Bill currently before Parliament introduces a new insurance framework for automated vehicles and is a step in the right direction.

While new technology often excites the public, it is important to ensure excitement progresses to adoption. Proper consumer engagement and education based on facts at every critical point in the journey towards ACES is key to cultivating public acceptance. While ACES may bring many benefits, consumers need to feel comfortable with new technology and be properly informed of the material advantages from adopting new technology. At the same time, they must be provided with the hard facts in order to make an informed decision based on individual needs.