Self-driving vehicles will emerge, but only gradually, IDC says

IDC doesn't think a Level 5 fully autonomous vehicle will appear before 2024, although Elon Musk said in July he's confident Tesla will have the technology this year. (Sensors)

Despite widespread media predictions of futuristic self-driving cars traveling highways around the globe, IDC recently forecast a more gradual move to vehicle autonomy in coming years.

The analyst firm said the number of vehicles produced by carmakers with at least the lowest level of vehicle autonomy will reach 54.2 million vehicles in 2024, up from 31.4 million in 2019.  That represents an annual growth rate of 11.5%.

The lowest level of driving autonomy is defined by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) as “Level 1-driver assistance” which includes technology for autonomous active steering or braking/acceleration where the drive remains responsible and in control of the vehicle and all dynamic functions.

Level 2—partial driving automation combines both active steering and braking/acceleration support for special dynamic driving tasks, but the driver is still expected to be in control and responsible. SAE provided an updated chart describing the levels in late 2018.

sae levels of driving automation chart

 Automation features increase in successively higher levels, reaching Level 5-full driving automation in which the autonomous driving system performs all dynamic tasks on all types of roadways and environments such as snow or rain and there is no requirement for a drive to be present or attentive.

SAE Levels 1 and 2 will be the two largest areas of autonomous growth by 2024 and half of all vehicles produced by 2024 will have some degree of automation.  Levels 4 and 5 will remain “the aspirational, revolutionary goal” by auto ecosystem companies, including chipmakers and components providers.  “The development and deployment of these vehicles will require significant advances in technology, customer readiness and trust and government regulation,” IDC said in a report. 

IDC added it does not expect any Level 5 vehicles to be available globally during the forecast period ending in 2024.  Many analysts have forecast similar findings and recognize that widespread use of autonomous vehicles on highways won’t occur for at least decades.

Still, the IDC report offers an optimistic note: the analyst firm predicts there will be 863,000 vehicles produced by 2024 globally that are highly automated, from Levels 3 to 4.

IDC didn’t describe the level of impact COVID-19 has had on autonomous driving research and development but many industry and analyst sources have said the impact is expected to be temporary, slowing down investments in R&D, but not ceasing investment.  Some R&D slowdowns could last one or two years, several sources have said.   Carmakers have seen sales drop up to 38% in the U.S. in the second quarter.

“The pathway to increased vehicle autonomy will be largely built on gradual feature and capability enhancements,” said Matt Arcaro, research manager at IDC, in a statement. “Although SAE Level 4, full self-driving vehicles will capture media headlines and will deliver tremendous value to society, the impact of SAE Levels 1 and 2 vehicle growth over the forecast period remains too large to be ignored.”

Many factors influence the gradual growth outlook for autonomous vehicles, not only COVID-19 research and development delays.  In 2019, Equinix also predicted that the “transition to autonomous vehicles will be gradual.”

Equinix quoted a major unnamed automaker as saying that even 5G wireless will not be fast enough for critical autonomous driving systems, putting the onus on in-vehicle networking to support real-time data exchanges.

Despite IDC’s prediction of no Level 5 autonomous vehicles by 2024, Tesla CEO Elon Musk told a Chinese AI conference in July that he was “confident that we will have the basic functionality for Level 5 autonomy complete this year.”

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