The autonomous vehicle is closer than you think. And last week at the inaugural Mobile World Congress Americas, Verizon Telematics Vice President Kelly Frey discussed the future of autonomous vehicles and what we can expect as the industry evolves. There are some exciting things on the horizon in the autonomous vehicle space — and Verizon is at the forefront of this evolution.
But the autonomous car isn’t here just yet. Frey says that we are only in “phase two” of autonomous vehicles. “If you follow the space at all, most articles talk about five phases of autonomy,” he says. “Today we’re only hands off the wheel, foot off the accelerator and the vehicle will keep driving.” Fully autonomous vehicles that do not require a driver will demand more robust networks with lower latency — something that will be a hallmark of Verizon’s upcoming 5G network.
Although fully autonomous vehicles are not yet a reality, there are a few things that Frey predicts we can look forward to as that future comes into view.
Cars on the road need advanced spatial awareness to protect passengers from the dangers of oncoming traffic and other factors, but there are many impressive technological improvements already happening off road, with what Frey refers to as “Yellow Iron” vehicles. Think of it this way: industrial vehicles that get work done will be autonomous before, say, a minivan.
“We’ve already got quite a lot going on with non-highway vehicles,” he explains. “Tractors, earthmovers, bulldozers — these types of vehicles are going to become autonomous before on-the-road vehicles.”
Reduced car ownership
The average American household owns about 1.8 cars, according to 2013 Census estimates. For many Americans, car ownership is a rite of passage and the second biggest purchase made in their lifetimes. But with autonomous vehicles set to hit the road in the next few years, Frey predicts that fewer and fewer people will make that investment. And with more autonomous vehicles on the road, our relationship with cars may become more transactional.
“Vehicle ownership is going to diminish,” says Frey. “You can already see that the number of cars needed in the rental pool is going down. For instance, I rarely rent a car on business now. I use Uber.”
Less vehicle congestion
If car rentals and ownership diminish, the number of cars in use may go down as well. “The bigger impact is probably going to be on parking,” says Frey. “And where are all these vehicles going?” Right now many American households have two-car garages to accommodate the cars we all drive and own. And those cars are parked on the street or in garages while people work all day. But if users can release an autonomous vehicle after arriving at their destinations, cars can return to the road, finding and delivering their next passengers to different destinations. That will reduce the number of cars needed and the need to store them during large stretches of the day — whether on surface streets in neighborhoods or parking garages.
Reduced environmental impact
Frey and his team at Verizon Telematics are already working with commercial fleets to reduce the environmental impact of vehicles on the road through improved navigation and routing technology. He cited one client that has a fleet of about 7,000 large trucks. Verizon helped to reduce that company’s mileage by 4% last year. That’s 28 million miles a truck didn’t get in an accident; 28 million miles that no fuel was consumed, no emissions were released and no labor was paid for.
It’s those kinds of tangible, real-world results get Frey very excited about the future of autonomous driving. “There’s about a billion vehicles on the planet, if we can just help improve fuel economy by 10%,” says Frey. “Help reduce the number of vehicles on the planet by 10% — by taking 100 million vehicles out of the ecosystem — that would be incredible.”
This one is a difficult topic, and one that Frey noted could seem glib but is actually a very real concern. According to the Department of Labor, 1 in 6 workers in the US who are killed on the job are truck drivers. “Driving is one of the riskiest things anyone does,” says Frey. “If we can make driving safer, we can use autonomous to great impact. That’s what I love about what I do.”
In order to support these advances, wireless networks are going to need to develop very quickly, reducing the latency of wireless signals and increasing security standards in particular. That is a core focus of Verizon right now as the company prepares the roll out of its 5G network.
Frey says that the next big test for his industry will be seeing if and when we get to level three of autonomous. To do that will require cooperation from multiple parties, which is something Verizon has prioritized.
“We’re trying to figure out what the partnering ecosystem should look like,” says Frey. “It’s really amazing all the internal capabilities that we have. As a company we’ve got internal leadership that’s bringing the teams together in a way that I never thought a company this big could do.”
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