Autonomous driving sales are accelerating, claims analyst house Canalys, citing global shipments of 3.5 million vehicles with Level 2 self-driving capability during calendar Q4 2020.
Whether a car is self-driving or not isn't a binary, but rather judged across a sliding scale. There are multiple "levels." The lowest, Level 0, refers to automated systems that may occasionally take control of the car, such as automatic parking. The highest, Level 5, refers to cars where manual controls are entirely optional.
The most prevalent standard is Level 2. Here, the car is able to control its momentum and direction, handling things like acceleration and assisted steering. However, the driver must be ready to take control of the vehicle at any time. Think of it as a super-cruise-control.
The most hyped-up example of this tech is Tesla's Autopilot system, although Canalys noted much of the last quarter's growth had come from brands like Honda, Toyota, Volkswagen, and Ford, which have started offering similar self-driving features as an optional extra on pricier models.
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Unsurprisingly, the US led the pack in end-user sales, accounting for 30 per cent (or 1.2 million units) of all new car sales. Japan, Europe, and China followed, with Level 2 semi-autonomous cars accounting for 20, 19, and 12 per cent of all sales.
Once the preserve of deep-pocketed early adopters, autonomous driving features are increasingly commonplace, with more cars retailing under $40,000. By contrast, in the second quarter of 2019, Level 2 features were present on 8 per cent of all new cars sold in Europe.
Carmakers have committed to increasing levels of automation in the coming years, with Level 3 functionality (which doesn't require the driver to remain in control, but rather ready to take over should the need arise) expected to trickle out from this year. Some of the first examples have already left the forecourt, with Honda starting limited lease sales of the Honda Legend EX customers in Japan.
BMW is also expected to release a Level 3 car in the coming year, dubbed the iNext EV.
Still, despite this progress, there remain significant barriers to widespread adoption, particularly on the legal front. Legislation simply has not kept up with technical progress, and features like Autopilot are technically illegal in the UK.
The UK government is expected to publish the results of its consultation on self-driving motors in early 2021. Earlier this year, Britain's Department for Transport said it expected the UK autonomous car market to be worth $41.7bn by 2035.
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Additional challenges have come in the form of semiconductor shortages, with carmakers afflicted with a shortage of parts, due in part by inventory and production management issues, as well as disruption to manufacturing facilities caused by extreme weather.
Although the self-driving market has developed in recent years, there remains a thick layer of scepticism about whether carmakers will be able to ditch the steering wheel for good, with Brit transport expert Christian Wolmar previously describing fully autonomous driving as an over-hyped pipe dream sold to the masses by publicity-thirsty conglomerates.
“This is a fantasy that has not been thought through, and is being promoted by technology and auto manufacturers because tech companies have vast amounts of footloose capital they don’t know what to do with, and auto manufacturers are terrified they’re not on board with the new big thing,” he told us in 2018.
"Billions are being spent developing technology that nobody has asked for, that will not be practical, and that will have many damaging effects.” ®