Hands off the wheel

Autonomous vehicles are coming, but slowly

The next challenge for legacy firms is to adapt to autonomy

FULLY AUTONOMOUS electric robotaxis, cheaper and more convenient than a private car, once seemed to threaten the entire industry. Six years ago it was assumed that nobody would buy cars any more, says Amnon Shashua, boss of Mobileye, an autonomous-driving tech firm. At best carmakers would be “white label” suppliers of cheap mass-produced hardware to ride-hailing firms such as Uber or tech giants that had mastered self-driving software. In turn robotaxis would be key for the shift to integrated systems that wove together public transport with private fleets of e-scooters and e-bikes. Such mobility platforms would provide one-click payments for a journey that might use several methods of transport. Smartphone apps would provide integrated, efficient and green urban travel at a fraction of the cost of car ownership.

The promise was backed by data suggesting that young people are no longer so keen to own or even drive cars. Evidence that the screen-obsessed youth of the rich world would rather be glued to a smartphone than slide into a driving seat is supported by the falling proportion obtaining driving licences. The inevitable outcome seemed to be plunging car sales. Yet in fact autonomous vehicles (AVs) and mobility services may be creating new opportunities for firms that can get them right.

A first myth to dispel is that the young are giving up driving for good. In car-mad America, which has around 890 cars per 1,000 people, only 1% of new cars are bought by people…