We’re on the cusp of the autonomous vehicle revolution but how will car dealerships adapt?

Hardly a month goes by without a car manufacturer laying out their technology and product deployment plans for semi or fully-autonomous vehicles. To determine where it’s all going, it’s worth first taking a good look at the six-level scale of autonomy because most manufacturers are moving through these levels at an increasingly rapid pace.

So much so that within three years, national legislation, regional/state regulatory clearance and road infrastructure changes may be the only factors holding back widespread deployment of Level 3, sometimes called ‘eyes off’, autonomous vehicle deployment on our roads.

Up until last month, 2021 was tipped to be the year that pre-defined sections on some of our largest motorways could be set aside for autonomous driving. But 18th March saw the first pedestrian death caused by an autonomous vehicle – an Uber driverless Volvo XC90 hit and killed a woman crossing the road in Tempe, Arizona.

Following this tragedy, Uber suspended its driverless taxi trials in Tempe, Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Toronto. It is difficult to predict how much of a setback this will be for adoption of full autonomy, particularly given new legislation covering autonomous vehicles currently being considered by both the UK Parliament and US Congress.

If we move ahead as previously planned, we can predict great deal more ‘smart motorway’-style roadworks to make it possible. A fair range of Level 3 autonomous vehicles to suit most pockets will be on the market by then also. These vehicles will offer their ‘driver’ the facility to safely turn their attention away from standard driving tasks. They will be able to send an email or txt and even take in a film or read a book.

The Level 3 autonomous vehicle will be able to handle situations that call for an immediate response including emergency braking.  However, the driver must still be prepared to intervene within a short-time frame (to be specified by the manufacturer) when called upon by the vehicle to do so.

The hand-over to the software and hand-back to the driver are key points where responsibility needs to be clarified in law still. What happens if, when the hand-over point comes, the driver is asleep? Whatever happens, the ‘black box’ recorder, fitted in all Level 3+ vehicles, will help prove who had control at the point of any incident.

The 2018 Audi A8 Luxury Sedan claims to be the first commercially-available car to be able to go to Level 3 autonomy. The car uses Audi’s Traffic Jam Pilot software which, when activated by the driver, takes full control of all aspects of driving in slow moving traffic (up to 60 kilometres per hour).

Nissan claims that it has already tested its autonomous systems in several of its cars including the Leaf at slow speeds and says it will be able to deploy several models on motorways by the end of this year. By 2020 its promised to have at least 10 models offering Level 3 autonomy.

Tesla claims to be ready to Level 3 automate its Model S cars whenever legislation allows. Its AutoPilot 2.0 software has been in ‘public beta’ in Model S’s for more than two years already. Elon Musk has put his timeline for autonomous roll out back a little following a fatal accident in the US in which the driver of a Level 3 Model S died two years ago. However, he still believes that within three years the software will drive vehicles more safely than humans. That surely must be a key milestone for more widespread adoption?

However, Level 3 capabilities must be switched off right now as we do not have the legal framework or road infrastructure to give Level 3 vehicles the green light in the UK. Legislation to promote smooth use of driverless cars is going through Parliament right now in the form of the Automated and Electric Vehicles Bill 2017-19. This law will aim to clarify key issues like who is liable for primary and third-party losses in the event of a crash involving an autonomous vehicle.

The legislation proposes that, provided the autonomous vehicle is properly insured; the owner has kept software patches up-to-date and physically well-maintained (with MOT proof etc); and has not modified the software in any way, then a motor insurer should cover the losses.  If, however the insurer can prove that the manufacturer’s software was malfunctioning to cause the incident, then the legislation offers scope for some horse-trading on who pays the losses between the OEM and the insurer.

The reality is that manufacturers are focusing on different parts of the autonomous puzzle because there are so many technology challenges at play here. Some are focused on being ready for autonomous motorway driving. Others have decided to start with high traffic, low-speed urban driving readiness. Still others are focused on developing excellence in a specific aspect of autonomous driving technology.

For example, Mercedes-Benz is focusing hard on perfecting ‘Active Lane Change Assist’ which might be a technology they sell to other OEMs as the market takes off. Mercedes also hopes to sell autonomous vehicles like its F 015 Luxury in Motion Level 5 driverless vehicle to the uber-wealthy presumably. Musk believes Level 5 vehicles should be ready by 2025.

In the meantime, many manufacturers are busy testing, trialling and rolling out different pieces of technology which will need to work together to deliver safe autonomous driving. For example, over recent years we’ve seen the deployment of Autonomous Emergency Braking (AEB) technology to reduce risks of collisions. Ford’s Active City Stop, Nissan's Forward Emergency Braking and Volvo’s City Safety system all offer this AEB capability which will become ubiquitous over time.

Those that are prepared to share technology and work together are likely to be the ones getting ahead of the significant R&D curve associated with realising the self-driving dream within the next three years.

So, if the timeline for quantities of Level 3 autonomous vehicles to hit our roads is just three years away; it’s definitely worth UK dealerships having a look at what their chosen manufacturers have in their vehicle roadmaps. There aren’t many big brands that don’t talk a good game.

However, the real question for dealerships must be: “How are we going to adapt the servicing-side of the business - assuming that a high percentage of the maintenance work on an autonomous car will be done via the Cloud, powered by a mobile app on the owner’s smart phone, rather than in our dealership?”

Ok there will still be tyres to fit, engines to tune and oil to change.  However, they cannot bank on all of that either as autonomous vehicle take-up will likely stimulate speedier adoption of Electric Vehicles too.  Service centres will need to become battery specialists as well as Level 3 autonomous software specialists. They may even want to become cybersecurity specialists to make sure vehicles passing through their centre have the latest security patches and have been cleaned of viruses, worms and other malware.  It cannot be long before we see the first vehicle-specific pre-emptive penetration testing operations.

And dealer changes will need to be put into action as early as next year for dealerships which are heavily reliant on their service centre operations to preserve profitability as new car sales profit margins continue to hover stubbornly close to 1%.

This article originally appeared in IMI