Autonomous vehicle predictions are premature: Toyota

The rise of autonomous vehicles and the potential decline in personal car ownership is not something automakers need to be worried about in 2017, according to an enterprise architect at Toyota Australia.

The advent of autonomous vehicles may not be all doom and gloom for the automotive industry as some have predicted, senior enterprise architect at Toyota Australia's Information Systems Division David Johnston-Bell has said.

Speaking at Informatica's Data Disruption Summit on Wednesday, Johnston-Bell said there are reports suggesting that autonomous vehicles could significantly reduce personal car ownership -- possibly by 80 to 90 percent.

Even Jacinta Hargan, director of the Future Transport Program at Transport for NSW, said the state government's future transport technology roadmap is based on four potential "futures", one of which centres on the idea that people will share ownership of connected and autonomous vehicles, and another where vehicle ownership is no longer important.

While projections are "useful for scenario planning", they can be quite premature, Johnston-Bell told ZDNet.

"I think it's great that we can say, 'what can happen in the world if 90 percent of the cars disappear?' What do [auto companies] have to do in that scenario?" he said.

"What about the other scenarios, where people say public transport is not going to increase ... where people don't want to live in high-density houses in the inner city, they want to have their single house in the outskirts? They need to have a form of mobility, so where's that going to come from?

"There are a range of options on the table, so I think [the prediction of] the death of the car is probably premature."

Johnston-Bell said such projections don't take into account a variety of circumstances, such as parents who have to shuttle their children around, or people who live far from cities where public transport is unreliable and infrequent.

Cars are also seen as "extensions of people's personalities", he said, and people might not be ready to overcome the idea of owning personal cars.

Johnston-Bell did acknowledge that there might be a "generational change" as people in their 20s or younger are more comfortable with the idea of "renting" rather than "owning" products and services such as with Netflix, Spotify, and Uber.

The problem, however, is that there comes a point where "renting" cars or using services such as Uber becomes more expensive than owning a personal car, Johnston-Bell told ZDNet.

Statistics also show that car sales are increasing, not decreasing, he pointed out: ACA Research found that year-on-year car sales increased by 4.4 percent in Australia as of June this year.

A study from Roy Morgan also indicated that as of September, 2.46 million Australians are intending to purchase a new car within the next four years -- an increase of 53,000 from July, and only marginally lower than the 15-year high recorded in February 2017.

Meanwhile, the number of Australians looking to purchase a new car in the next 12 months increased by 9.2 percent quarter on quarter to 679,000 during the July-to-September quarter, according to Roy Morgan.

Johnston-Bell said there are far too many issues that need to be addressed before autonomous vehicles hit the road in any noticeable capacity, one of the most important being liability during car accidents.

In September, the Australian House of Representatives Industry, Innovations, Science and Resources Committee similarly said that issues around legal liability and insurance need to be addressed before Australians will be comfortable with "automated vehicles".

"The central question revolves around where legal responsibility lies should a vehicle operating with at least some automation be involved in an accident. Currently, even the most advanced vehicles have an identifiable driver who is responsible for control of the vehicle. However, ambiguity arises when the vehicle is not being -- and in higher-level vehicles, cannot be -- controlled by a person within it," the committee said in its Social Issues Relating to Land-Based Automated Vehicles in Australia report.

"Thus, the question arises: Who is responsible for that vehicle in the case of an accident? The owner, the car's manufacturer, or someone else?"

Toyota itself, in its submission to the inquiry, said Australian standards pertaining to the control of automated vehicles should be aligned to international ones.

"The challenge for legislators will be to ensure that the legislated definitions cater for the different levels of automation in addition to conventional vehicles (ie, 'mixed fleets'), and that the clarification in ambiguity on the automated vehicle front does not have any unintended consequences when it comes to defining 'control' and 'proper control' for the non-automated fleet," the vehicle manufacturer stated in its submission.

"The definition of 'control' and 'proper control' used in legislation should be based on globally harmonised regulations."

The committee added that issues around data ownership and security, safety, ethics, and the future of employment also need to be addressed.

While Johnston-Bell was not able to disclose how Toyota is preparing for the potential future wherein the number of autonomous vehicles increases and car ownership decreases, at the start of the year, Toyota Research Institute's CEO Gill Pratt warned that the automotive sector is "not even close" to launching fully autonomous vehicles.

Johnston-Bell did reveal, however, that Toyota is in the early stages of implementing a data program, further acknowledging that the company sees a significant opportunity in using data to move from a vehicle-centric model to a customer-centric one.

While he remained tight-lipped about the hypotheses the company currently has around how it can enhance customer experience through better use of data, he did say Toyota wants to be able to anticipate its customers' and prospects' needs, and adapt quickly to those.

He also noted that Toyota sells to dealers, not to customers directly, which means a lot of customer data is in dealers' databases. As such, dealers needs to be a key part of its data strategy moving forward.

"We're [using data] to understand how people want to interact with Toyota ... We want to be able to use the data to differentiate ourselves from our competitors in the marketplace so we can become much more relevant to people in the future," Johnston-Bell told ZDNet.

"To use an analogy if you can buy groceries ... from the comfort of your mobile phone at your home ... someone's going to ask why can't I organise a test drive from my mobile phone."

He admitted that there are challenges around data sovereignty that the company needs to stay abreast of, especially as the European Union's (EU) General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) comes into effect in 2018.

The GDPR will require organisations around the world that hold data belonging to individuals from within the EU to provide a high level of protection and explicitly know where every piece of data is stored. Organisations that fail to comply with the regulation requirements could be fined up to €20 million, or, in the case of an undertaking, up to 4 percent of the total worldwide annual turnover of the preceding financial year -- whichever is higher.

"In Australia, if an organisation responsible for the data at hold, if it gets leaked out, or used incorrectly, then it doesn't matter where it's stored in the world, the organisation is still responsible for that, so data sovereignty becomes very important to understand," Johnston-Bell said.

"There are some countries in the world where governments can basically do as they please with data, so if that conflicts with Australian laws then you're going to have to be careful where you stick your data ... and it's all about protecting Australians' data on themselves.

"The European Union is going to ... change some laws around data so that anyone who is a EU citizen anywhere in the world has certain rights over their data if it's there. Any company that has some footing in the EU -- Toyota would be part of that, because we have operations in the EU -- will be caught up in that as well, so it's all about ensuring that you're compliant with these laws.

"It's going to be a game changer around the world."

Earlier this year, Toyota, along with Intel, Ericsson, NTT, and others, formed a consortium that aims to build an ecosystem revolving around connected-car data.

This data will connect to cloud computing networks to support real-time maps, driving assistance, and other services. The Automotive Edge Computing Consortium will focus on new architectures to support what's expected to be 10 exabytes a month from connected cars.

Networking between the cloud and automobiles will be a focus and the consortium plans to propose standards, best practices, and architecture plans.

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