April 2, 2018
Excitement is building within the driverless car industry as the entrance into consumer market moves closer everyday. Arrival dates differ from expert to expert. According to some, driverless cars will be fully functional and on the road within a decade, while others are predicting it will just be a few years from now. There are also those who are sticking to the conservative ten year mark.
Beyond the release date, a few things need to be worked out before the driverless cars hit the road. The technology, for one, continues to need refinement.
Right now, laser-based systems, known as LIDAR (short for “light detection and ranging”) appear to be the most promising technology under development. However, if the cars themselves are expected to be able to prevent all collisions and avoid causing car accident injuries, work still needs to be done. Major companies like Google, Amazon, and Velodyne – along with over 50 startups – are entering the competition to release the most effective model.
The size of the technology and number of components necessary also make for less than attractive car styling. A LIDAR sensor on the roof with the possibility of adding secondary ones elsewhere, alternate radar systems, and cameras all need to be mounted onto the vehicles. The result looks ungainly and inelegant. Before the research can focus on reducing the size of the units, the industry needs to unanimously support a standard.
However, the biggest obstacle confronting the permeation of driverless cars into the mass market is their price tag.
Cost Will Dictate Adoption by Consumers
Individual teams of researchers and developers are already promoting their own cost-effective solutions to the problem of the high prices of driverless car technology. Meanwhile, they’re pointing out the high expense of their peers. A small start-up named Ouster claims their system will only run consumers $12K, while the Velodyne’s tech costs $75K.
Of course, no one knows the final figures, but even at $12K on top of the cost of the car itself, the price will remain out of reach for most consumers. Waymo, a Google spin-off company, says it has reduced costs of its $75K system by 90%, or to about $7.5K.
The average American car purchaser spends about $34K on a new vehicle. Convincing them that a 33% mark-up for a driverless car is worth it–or even needed–is going to be a hard sell.
Cost predictions, however, need to be examined for clarity. The $7.5K low-end estimate from Google is certainly cheaper than others, but that’s only how much the main LIDAR device will cost. Smaller assist versions will likely be needed around the car as well. This currently runs up a tab of about $8K each, unless Waymo can figure out how to reduce that by 90%, too.
Factor in an additional radar system at $10K and necessary cameras ringing in at around $5K, and the equipment costs quickly jump back into the five-figure range. Which is, again, in addition to the cost of the computer system that runs and coordinates all of the tech in addition to the original cost of the car.
The Prices Will Drop
Taken together, best case scenarios call for around $25K worth of driverless car tech to be added. This is almost the current price consumers are willing to pay for a car alone.
To put some comparative context around that, it’s the difference between buying a new Chevrolet Corvette for around $60K and a new Impala for around $30K. Both are nice cars, but most consumers are opting for the Impala price-range.
It’s the nature of technology that prices will come down. Miniaturization, for instance, brings manufacturing costs down, as does scalability. In 2007, the iPhone cost almost $600 in today’s currency, versus the now-routine $200 versions of each new iteration. Flat screen TVs cost around $5K for a 42” screen ten years ago and can be had for less than a tenth of that today.
Time will dictate the real costs, which will undoubtedly be cheaper than they are presently. Until then, we can all anticipate the safety and convenience, and try to wait as patiently as we can.