Over the last decade, there has been extensive research and development on autonomous vehicles, representing a significant investment in time and money. These efforts raised high expectations. This R&D work has led to one conclusion: the development of autonomous vehicles is much more complex than initially imagined.
Today, we have a realistic understanding of the subject. We are aware of the technological barriers and the challenges ahead, but we also have a roadmap and real-world use cases for autonomous commercial services on private sites.
Expectations readjusted in the face of technological challenges
Technological barriers are closely linked to the issue of safety. "Beyond AI, there's the whole mechanical side to adapt to autonomous driving. Braking and steering are still based on mechanical processes. It's not insurmountable, but it does take time," explains Benoit Perrin. Aware of this, the industry now seems to have clarified its roadmap for the coming years, focusing on the main technological barriers. At the same time, the subject of decarbonization has become the industry's priority, relegating the autonomous vehicle to the background and reducing the budgets allocated to this subject.
"In my opinion, investments have not necessarily decreased, but they have refocused on technically accessible use cases with a viable business model," moderates Benoit Perrin.
At the same time, progress has been made on the regulatory front, and since 2022, the approval framework for Level 4 autonomous driving has been defined in France. "We're convinced that the real challenge is level 4, i.e. fully automated driving," shares Benoit Perrin.
A new equation that puts safety at the heart
When it comes to safety, Americans and Europeans take very different approaches. While the former drives and then has to deal with any problems as they occur, the latter must first demonstrate that there will be no problems before driving.
"Safety is the central element of autonomous vehicles. Initially, many sold a dream with autonomous vehicles. Today, the equation has changed: how to achieve acceptable performance with a safety level much higher than that of traditional cars. We cannot rely solely on AI, whose safety is not demonstrable at 100%," says Benoit Perrin. "In the design phase, the first 90% is easy, but then, in the remaining 10%, 90% of the effort is required. We quickly saw cars doing extraordinary things, but scaling up and removing the driver, all while maintaining satisfactory safety levels, requires much more effort," he continues.
"It is necessary to proceed step by step, making use cases safe one after the other, and gradually unlocking the safety question," adds Salah Eddine Echatoui.
France focuses on both public transport and logistics
Autonomous vehicles for private use no longer seem to be a priority. The manufacturers of private vehicles have not managed to converge on a viable economic equation, given the additional technological cost. Far from American robotaxis, France is now focusing more on public transport, private tracks and logistics. "Today, we're starting to see things go well in fully autonomous mode for luggage handling at airports, for example, or for transporting people to private sites, such as leisure parks", Benoit Perrin explains.
Everyone agrees that the Americans and Chinese are years ahead of the Europeans in certain applications, such as the robotaxi. But the gap is far from irreversible. "In Europe, funding levels are not comparable to those in the United States. But the European approach is an intelligent one, based on finding the best way to address the market quickly, taking into account all the constraints, whether technological, financial or regulatory", explains Salah Eddine Echatoui.
The shared autonomous vehicle, a social asset
Today, most autonomous vehicles are electric, but the production of individual autonomous vehicles does not meet environmental challenges. "We won't hide the fact that, just as with conventional vehicles, the production of autonomous cars has no positive effect on the environment. On the other hand, by focusing on shared modes of transport, as EasyMile does, we can reap significant social benefits. The development of more efficient and less costly public transport is a response to the problems of an aging population, an increase in the number of people with reduced mobility, and the need to open up rural areas," shares Benoit Perrin.
"In the long term, this could lead to a reduction in the use of private vehicles, which is good for the environment," adds Salah Eddine Echatoui.
"Today, there's been a real return to reality. The industry is much more mature than it was a few years ago, aware of the technological challenges and economic stakes involved. Autonomous vehicles are not dead, we're just at an inflection point, at a crucial moment for the industry", concludes Salah Eddine Echatoui.