How the U.S. election could affect the future of autonomous driving, China relations

The Robot Report

Founded in 2017, Gatik launched a commercial service with U.S. retailer Walmart in July 2019. | Credit: Gatik

Over the past decade, the United States of America has paved the way for an autonomous future. In addition to steps already taken by the U.S. Department of Transportation, President-elect Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan signals a strong future for the autonomous vehicle industry, but it is important to not let trade conflicts with China impede future success. The next four years under the Biden administration could prove crucial to the nation’s ability to lead in the race to autonomous driving and create safe roads throughout the country.

The COVID-19 pandemic has turned the world on its head. Consumers are more concerned than ever about the safety of their loved ones. And though driver safety, or lack thereof, is not a pandemic, road traffic injuries have been the leading cause of death for children and young adults aged 5-29 years and the eighth leading cause of deaths globally.

As America works to “build back better,” road safety needs to be taken into account. Given that 95% of all road accidents are due to human error, prioritizing advanced driver-assistance systems (ADAS) vehicles can get us to a safer place.

What the U.S. offers the ADAS industry

The U.S. is uniquely positioned to succeed in the ADAS testing space. Its infrastructure makes it ideal for holding trial runs for self-driving vehicles, especially trucks, which are shaping up to be at the forefront of ADAS rollouts.

As trucks are responsible for a significant amount of carbon emissions, it’s no surprise that they are targeted for an electric vehicle (EV) overhaul. Similarly, as trucks are typically transporting goods rather than people, they present a slightly safer alternative to the self-driving cabs typically associated with autonomous driving.

In the past few months alone, we’ve seen Einride make significant progress in driverless trucks, even locking in a pilot program in the US. Canada is also getting involved as Gatik recently rolled out driverless grocery delivery. And though experts predict we’ll see trucks on the road more frequently once we deploy fully autonomous fleets, the impact of having these EVs will ultimately result in lower carbon emissions.

Compared with Europe’s tight infrastructure, North America’s wide and sweeping highways are optimal for testing large-scale driverless vehicles. Though both regions still need to update existing infrastructure to incorporate AV specific enhancements, such as staging areas, charging stations and inspection locations, North America simply has more space than Europe.

For example, Audi, a German-based company, has expressed its frustrations in European ADAS testing regulations, especially in comparison with their U.S. counterparts. In addition, the U.S. also has options for large-scale testing facilities like the University of Michigan’s Mcity. However, as of mid 2022, all new cars put on the EU market are required to be equipped with ADAS features, setting the continent up for faster large-scale deployment than the U.S.

Biden and an autonomous future

Biden has signaled that his administration will prioritize infrastructure, which could prove favorable to the AV industry. His plan emphasizes the importance of EVs, and the U.S.’s deployment of fuel-efficient cars and trucks can only help the ADAS space, as most autonomous vehicles will be electrically powered.

Similarly, poor road maintenance is one of the most consistent challenges driverless cars face. Biden’s focus on road repair, in addition to promising developments in self-repairing smart concrete, could allow for a smoother transition to autonomous driving.

Finally, even without the pending Biden administration, the U.S. regulatory environment is decidedly more favorable than Europe’s to the transportation industry. With less red tape around securing appropriate permits, it’s far easier to set up testing sites on American soil. Long gone are the days where California served as the country’s lone test site. A number of states are jumping on the testing bandwagon ranging from the SunTrax Testing Facility in Florida to a rollout of potential Walmart delivery trucks in Arizona.

Further, the Department of Transportation (DOT) has already shown willingness to establish self-driving standards. Just earlier this month, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration began soliciting public comments to standardize safety protocols for driverless vehicles. So while this initiative began under Pres. Donald Trump, federal guidelines will certainly come to fruition under Biden.

Joe Biden U.S. autonomous vehicles

Joe Biden, former U.S. vice president, speaking in Las Vegas early in 2020. Credit: Gage Skidmore

The China problem

It is no surprise that the Chinese market could provide American ADAS makers with a wealth of consumers. The size of China‘s market alone is enough to convince any business to target its consumers, but it also helps that they are more open to driverless vehicles, according to a recent study from Deloitte.

As of 2020, only 35% of Chinese respondents stated that they do not think self-driving cars are safe, in comparison with 48% of Americans. Similarly, U.S. residents have been slower to change their attitudes as a whole, with the percentage consistently wavering between 47% and 50% in the past three years, unlike countries such as Japan, which have seen more significant changes in perception.

Furthermore, while COVID-19 has crippled other markets, the pandemic has served to tighten the focus on the importance of self-driving cars, with many viewing driverless deliveries as a safer alternative, allowing robotaxi companies such as AutoX to secure a renewed wave of support.

China’s focus on 5G wireless network infrastructure and smart cities may allow for vehicles with ADAS to hit the roads en masse far ahead of the U.S. timeline. Not only would this potentially position China for a faster rollout, but it would also have an edge when it comes to statewide integration. While the U.S. lags in 5G infrastructure, China’s 5G focus may ultimately enable autonomous vehicles to take the road using a 5G transportation grid with a more standardized approach.

In terms of China’s access to the U.S., even Chinese companies have taken notice of the U.S.’s unparalleled access to potential test sites. Some automakers that don’t even make or sell cars in the U.S. have licenses to test self-driving cars in California. In short, both countries would lose valuable investment opportunities should ongoing trade conflicts persist. But with China continuing to thrive in the industry, even during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is more crucial than ever that the U.S. has access to this market.

Individual U.S. states lead the AV charge

Regardless of who is in the Oval Office, individual states have been making significant strides in autonomous driving on their own. Between Silicon Valley and Waymo’s rollout in California to Boston Dynamics shaking up the tech scene in Massachusetts, autonomous systems have made headway from coast to coast.

As of this year, 45 out of 50 states have taken it upon themselves to enact AV-related legislation. Even Nevada has gotten in on the action with Motional’s pending rollout. It is clear that the states have prioritized autonomous driving and will continue to do so, regardless of federal guidance.

With that in mind, one of the most important aspects of an autonomous future is standardization. Of course, that applies to a standardization of regulations across the U.S. But more importantly, it also applies to a standardization of the technology used in these vehicles across North America, Europe, and Asia. At the end of the day, over 1.35 million people around the world lose their lives each year to driving related accidents. If we want to ensure a faster road to autonomous driving and a truly safer future, we need to take industrial and scientific collaboration seriously.

Johannesson U.S. vehiclesAbout the author

Pär-Olof Johannesson is CEO of TerraNet AB. He led the initial public offering on the Nasdaq First North Premier Growth Market in 2017 and has been an entrepreneur and technology executive for more than 20 years.

Johannesson previous positions include operating venture partner at Mankato Investments, BA director at Flextronics, area manager at ABB, project manager at Ericsson, and attaché for the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs. He has also been an instructor at Stanford, MIT, and the Lund School of Economics and Management.

TerraNet has a strategic focus in active safety and develops software for radio-based solutions, as well as three-dimensional image analysis for ADAS and self-driving vehicles. The Lund, Sweden-based company has established sales and marketing agents in the U.S. and Germany.

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