Consumer interest in self-driving vehicle technology looked for a while as if it was losing ground. But in the new reality of COVID-19, the game is on again.
The pandemic is sparking new public interest in vehicles that can drive themselves, said David Strickland, Democratic staff director of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, in a Zoom presentation during the Center for Automotive Research Management Briefing Seminars on Tuesday.
COVID-19 "is going to have some impact on automated vehicle adoption," Strickland said.
He said government efforts to encourage livable cities that are efficient and clean — and that foster mass transit, walking and bicycling — have been complicated by consumer concerns over the spread of the coronavirus.
"The virus has turned all of that upside down," Strickland said. "What I've been seeing in terms of how we think about funding transportation systems is that people are clearly not traveling, and when they do choose to travel, they don't want to travel with large groups of people."
The spirit of the moment is a return to individual mobility, he observed. "There's going to be a big argument that we really can't move that far away from individual mobility. We could have another pandemic in future years.
"The notion of automated vehicles that consumers want to use for individual trips is going to be a very intensely debated question. There will be more interest in vehicles that do not have a driver."
However, the infrastructure technology needed for driverless vehicles is not yet in place. Highways and city streets are not prepared to handle vehicles that must communicate with the environment and other vehicles.
Another problem: The technology just isn't ready.
Advanced 5G capability needs to move from cellphones to vehicles to enable data transfer at speeds fast enough to ensure safety, said Jim Misener, senior director of product management at Qualcomm Technologies, which specializes in wireless technologies.
That advance "would make an autonomous vehicle work even better," he said.
The industry continues looking for ideas.
Racing might help speed the technology to maturation, said John Waraniak, vice president of vehicle technology for the Specialty Equipment Market Association. He cited crash-event data recorders that debuted in race cars and quickly moved to production vehicles as an example.
Toyota is engaged in another aspect of moving the technology forward, said Rini Sherony, a Toyota senior principal engineer at the company's Collaborative Safety Research Center in Ann Arbor, Mich.
Toyota is focused on rolling out technologies that reduce accidents with the goal of vehicles someday driving themselves. Toyota engineers go to accident scenes, collect data and study crashes to determine how safety features on the vehicle could be improved to help avoid crashes. Sherony said Toyota estimates that 60 percent of vehicle crashes can be eliminated by 2050.