Driving ambitions: what our roads will look like in 2050

Cars will soon be more like supercomputers, as the auto industry strives to make transportation an accident, emissions and stress-free process via technology

An rendering of an 'intelligent intersection' by German manufacturer, Continental.
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Do you remember the day you bought your first smartphone? When making calls became secondary to web surfing and social media, because it had internet connectivity, paid subscription services and apps? Well, welcome to driving in 2040, the time when experts believe today's car will transition from being a mechanical appliance to a connected software device.

Continental, Uber, Google, Apple join the race

Essentially, the industry is striving for zero accidents, zero emissions and zero stress through smart connectivity and one of the giants in supplying this architecture to the car manufacturers has been Continental. The German company, famed for its tyres, has invested more than €3 billion (Dh12.4bn) in developing mobility solutions. "Today the auto industry turns over $2.8bn [Dh10.3bn] in software manufacturing but our projection for 2030 should double that to $5.5bn, so the race is on for software development," says Elmar Degenhart, chairman of Continental's executive board. "At the same time, there is expected to be minor growth in hardware, from $2.5bn to $2.8bn, so a lot of industries outside the automotive sector are looking to build their own cars. Software is the critical success criteria for the automotive industry for the next 15 years."

This not only opens up opportunities among well-known brands, but also allows tech companies such as Google and Lyft to build their own cars. It is why Apple, Uber and Waymo are all ramping up strategies to join the race and move into a new world of car manufacturing that is largely digital.

Continental’s robo-taxi Cube requires no human intervention. Courtesy Continental
Continental’s robo-taxi Cube requires no human intervention. Courtesy Continental

Dubai and beyond

In Dubai, the city's Autonomous Transportation Strategy aims to convert 25 per cent of its total transportation to become fully autonomous by 2030. In preparation, the emirate has implemented rules governing driverless car testing as it expects to be an early adopter, and forecasts savings of 12 per cent in environmental pollution and 44 per cent in transportation costs within a decade. This will reportedly save up to Dh900 million annually.

Internationally, the development of the first global 5G solution for vehicles is already underway, which will not only allow cars to "talk" to each other faster and with fewer interruptions, but will also warn each other of accidents or traffic jams ahead.

By 2023, the software ratio in the average car will represent 40 per cent compared with 10 per cent in 2013

Street lamps will become transmitters and are already being modified with cameras and sensors so they can alert cars to vacant parking spaces. The spot can be reserved using satnav technology known as geofencing, which places a virtual perimeter around the space to stop other cars from parking until you have arrived. Transmitters will also make drivers aware of hidden hazards, such as pedestrians emerging from behind vehicles. These street lamps can also detect CO2 emissions and, by connecting with traffic signals and other nearby vehicles, they can actually alter duration at the light to reduce emissions from idling cars.

Dubai's Downtown district is one of the areas that will trial these lamps, as the UAE ramps up its smart city efforts. Earlier this year, the Roads and Transport Authority announced that more than half of Dubai roads will be equipped with smart traffic management systems. Covering more than 60 per cent of the city's roads, the Dh590m work began last year, according to Mattar Al Tayer, the director general and chairman of the Board of Executive Directors RTA, and a quarter of the project is already done.

The Dubai RTA chief Mattar Al Tayer with a representative of the Chinese driverless flying car maker, Ehang. Courtesy APCO Worldwide
The Dubai RTA chief Mattar Al Tayer with a representative of the Chinese driverless flying car maker, Ehang. Courtesy APCO Worldwide

"Upon completion, the project will ease the management of traffic bottlenecks and accidents, enhance safety of road users and ease personal mobility thanks to the use of sophisticated technologies," Al Tayer said.

Other smart city pilots operated by Continental – in Michigan, US and in China – are trialling intelligent intersections that exchange data using Short-Range Communication and Cellular V2X (vehicle-to-other) to protect pedestrians and cyclists. This means that the information is transmitted between traffic signals, street lamps and a fleet of cars, which have all been fitted with a combination of sensors – including radar, lidar and GPS – to replicate a fully driverless environment.

Cars morph into supercomputers

Unsurprisingly, this all requires enormous computing power, which will see cars shift from using around 150 Electronic Control Unit (ECU), to two or three supercomputers connected to the cloud. Dirk Diekhoff, Continental's head of partner management, puts that into layman's terms: "The space shuttle required 400,000 lines of code whereas a car currently uses between 200,000 and 1 million lines of code and a high-performance computer needed for autonomous cars will need 20 million lines of code.

“By 2023, the software ratio in the average car will represent 40 per cent compared with 10 per cent in 2013, meaning the car is turning into a software device.”

Degenhart predicts car manufacturing will shift to a model that is closer to making large computers. “Building a car with hundreds of ECUs has become too complex and is a headache, so we’re trying to simplify the process,” he says. “The target is for standardised server architecture by 2030.

“The price, however, will be far in advance of €10,000 per car and we know from our own surveys that the acceptance rate from the private sector for autonomous driving remains low, at around 25 per cent.”

By 2025, however, nearly every car sold will be connected after legal regulations recently recognised the mode of transport as an Internet of Things device. This allows car companies to upsell features such as real-time traffic information and GPS maps for specific areas tailored to tourists. These could be purchased on a monthly basis via an app.

What's in the near future?

But autonomous functions have already filtered into our driving habits, such as the use of on-board cameras that assess the road to warn the driver of an approaching corner, for example. If a person is travelling too fast, the car will automatically apply the brakes.

The W Motors self-driving vehicle prototype, which was on display at the International Defence Exhibition and Conference in Abu Dhabi, is an example of autonomous technology. Victor Besa / The National. 
The W Motors self-driving vehicle prototype, which was on display at the International Defence Exhibition and Conference in Abu Dhabi, is an example of autonomous technology. Victor Besa / The National. 

Another feature soon to be included is a right-turn assistant that uses short-range radar to capture the vehicle's surroundings in high resolution, to spot a pedestrian or cyclist approaching from behind. If the driver does not respond to a visual warning, the system applies the brakes. This will be required on all new European cars from 2022.

While Continental is developing these for original equipment manufacturers such as Volkswagen, Audi, Jaguar and Alfa Romeo, you can also expect Google subsidiary Waymo, along with ride-share companies Lyft and Uber, to become increasingly involved. For example, in partnership with Lyft, Waymo used a fleet of modified Chrysler Voyagers to offer a commercial robo-taxi through the suburbs of Phoenix, Arizona last year. It reported that human intervention from the standby driver was only needed on average once every 17,627 kilometres.Uber has also spent more than a billion on its autonomous vehicle project, which was valued at $7.25bn in April and was also based on a modified production car, this time the Volvo XC90. The ride-hailing company is trialling self-driving trucks in Arizona and plans to buy "tens of thousands" of autonomous cars based on the Volvo.

Are self-driving cars safe?

Unlike these Level 4 cars – which require a standby driver – Continental's driverless robo-taxi "Cube" is a purpose-built, Level 5 car – requiring no human intervention at all. It demonstrates the co-operation between the company's technologies – anti-lock brakes, radar, lidar, GPS and a redundant brake system – to make autonomous driving reliable and safe. Cubes are undergoing real-world tests across Europe, North America and China. The National also briefly "drove" one in a mixed traffic environment under controlled conditions at Continental's test track in Hannover, Germany. The test showed the car is a real-world option for the medium-term future.

An Uber self-driving Volvo is on exhibit at the Uber Elevate Summit 2019 in Washington, DC June 12, 2019. - Uber unveiled its newest self-driving vehicle produced by Volvo Cars. The Volvo XC90 prototype will be "capable of fully driving itself," according to an Uber statement, with  sensors atop and built into the vehicle to allow it to operate and maneuver in an urban environment. (Photo by EVA HAMBACH / AFP)
A self-driving Volvo by cab-hailing app company Uber. AFP

However, Degenhart says Level 4 cars will only begin to pervade our roads in very small volumes by 2025. “Mostly in robo-taxis that follow a pre-assigned path, so we know the development will be slow but steady,” he adds.

“Our aim firstly is to eliminate road fatalities and then we want to stop accidents completely. It is possible because we have the technology and it is a social responsibility of the automotive industry.”

While that is an admirable sentiment, the general consensus is that achieving zero fatalities will come only after the entire traffic network is flushed with fully autonomous, Level 5 driverless cars that think for themselves. These are not expected to be on our roads until 2030 and in volume only by 2050.

So, for the motorist who loves driving, the good news is that there is still plenty of time to enjoy the wide-open roads. Even better, however, is knowing that the stress and frustration of dealing with unwary drivers, accidents, tackling gridlocked inner cities, finding parking spots and battling with rush-hour traffic will soon be consigned to automation.