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Driverless cars could be an unachievable dream

·2-min read
Uber has sold its driverless car division - AFP
Uber has sold its driverless car division - AFP

There are growing concerns that widespread use of driverless cars is slipping further away and development may no longer be financially viable after Uber sold its autonomous vehicle division.

Transportation experts have warned that continued investment of millions of pounds on developing the technology makes less financial sense to carmakers which have seen a severe drop in sales during the coronavirus pandemic.

“People have started to realise that it's not as easy as they thought it was,” said Charlie Henderson, a transport expert at PA Consultancy. “We're seeing a rebalancing of expectations around when autonomous vehicles are going to come to the market.”

Uber announced on Monday that it had agreed a deal to sell its driverless car division and abandoned plans to build its own autonomous cars.

It sold its Advanced Technologies Group division to US start-up Aurora in exchange for a minority stake in the business.

"If anything, I'm surprised Uber kept going with this for so long,” said Steve New, an associate professor of operations management at Saïd Business School.

Volkswagen chief executive Herbert Diess said last week that he expects driverless cars to be ready to go on sale between 2025 and 2030, although experts warn that carmakers may be souring on the high cost of developing the vehicles.

“It's not burning a few million and then you build a car,” Mr Henderson said, “it's hundreds if not billions by the time you get it to the market. At the moment I still struggle to see who is actually going to buy an autonomous vehicle.”

Developing fully driverless cars is “insanely difficult” when carmakers have to factor in the randomness of everyday roads, Mr New added.

“I'm not expecting to be able to get into a car and say 'take me to Aunty Mabel while I read a book' in my lifetime,” he said. “And to be honest, I'm not sure that benefit of that over a human driver - me or someone else - is worth very much.”

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