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Car rental industry preparing for autonomous vehicles

<div>Driverless cars are hitting the headlines once more, with the UK seeking to lead the way thanks to a $40m government investment and trials throughout the country. But what impact would they have…
Driverless cars are hitting the headlines once more, with the UK seeking to lead the way thanks to a $40m government investment and trials throughout the country. But what impact would they have on the global car hire industry and are we truly ready to embrace the concept?

The future of driverless cars

A picture of high-tech vehicles transporting relaxed passengers throughout the world’s highways with precision and efficiency seems to both excite and terrify. Implications of what this futuristic development could mean for transport industries, the economy and general public are enormous. But government bodies and lawmakers may simply have to make sense of this international phenomenon, with some estimates predicting a production line within 10 years.
The driverless vehicle appears to be the ‘holy grail’ for manufacturers and engineers alike, and while the concept certainly feels novel, it has been growing in popularity for quite some time. Mercedes-Benz was working on the idea in the 1980s, while embryonic experiments actually began in the 1920s. However, the latest announcement that four pilot programs are being launched in London, Milton Keynes, Bristol and Coventry has brought the topic back into the public eye.

Making the roads safer

Various studies have confirmed that more than 90% of road accidents are associated with human error, with immense economic costs and millions of lives ruined every year. In the United States, car accidents are often the main cause of non-natural death – 2012 stats revealed 33,561 motor vehicle deaths, an increase on 2010 and 2011.
There is also the issue of differing road rules across the world and the increasing growth in tourism.

A highway code for tourists in rental cars

A subject of regular debate in New Zealand for example is accidents involving tourists. Following a series of high-profile crashes, road safety campaigners want to stop tourists arriving on long-haul flights and jumping straight into a car hire. Foreign visitors are often travelling long distances across the North and South Islands, unaware of driving conditions and may be susceptible to mistakes on the road. This was brought into sharp focus in December last year, when a tourist was seen driving on the wrong side of the highway before a fatal crash on South Island’s West Coast, while in February 2015 a five-year-old girl was killed when a Chinese tourist crashed his vehicle in North Otago.  
It was announced last month that New Zealand’s Rental Vehicle Association was in discussion with the Tourism Industry Association to establish a Queenstown blacklist, prohibiting any tourist whose rental contract had been cancelled from getting behind the wheel of another rental company’s vehicle. Meanwhile, drivesafe.org.nz was launched to provide handy information and driving tips for overseas visitors.

Self-drive travel could be the way forward

Driverless cars would obviously eliminate such issues, and Rohan Marx, GM of airportrentals.com and motorhomerepublic.com, says we need to brace ourselves for the inevitable progress of this new technology.

self driven car

“There are many advantages to autonomous vehicles, in both the car and motorhome rental sectors. In fact, talking with some of our international RV rental suppliers, there's a definite feeling of inevitability about self-driving. It seems difficult to comprehend right now, but some sources suggest it could be a major trend in the industry in as little as five years,” says Marx, whose businesses rent more than 300,000 vehicles globally each year.

“Daimler is well aware of the burgeoning concept and has begun testing an autonomous freight truck,” notes Marx. The Mercedes-Benz Future Truck 2025 program is designed to create robotic trucks, which will reduce costs and cut emissions. “And if the likes of Daimler can get it right, there could be safety benefits in both the motorhome and car rental sectors.

“Consider international customers, for instance, who may not be confident driving in a foreign country on the opposite side of the road with vastly different road rules and signs, in a language with written symbols illegible to them. Customers can also relax more and enjoy the scenery. The implications for tourism are quite extraordinary.”

Pros for the car rental industry

  • Fewer accidents, which means fewer casualties on the road and safer driving conditions.
  • Automated drive tours could be popular with domestic and international travellers. Special itineraries are already locked in to the vehicle and marketed as such, attracting more leisure renters.
  • The bus tours and coach tours market would be increasingly squeezed, offering more financial opportunities for the rental sector.
  • Drivers may be prepared to pay higher insurance premiums just to steer their own rental vehicles. The love of driving a car is unlikely to disappear.
  • Being able to enjoy the views or prepare for an important meeting, instead of worrying about controlling the wheel.

What you need to know about driverless cars

In basic terms, the driverless car is operated by sensory equipment within the vehicle’s computers. The one currently being trialled in Greenwich, South London, has 21 sensors on board, laser radar and touch-sensitive strips. The cost of making them in terms of mass production is impossible to estimate, but the technology bill alone is upwards of US$100,000. However, the latest British investment indicates that the ambition is burning brighter than ever.
So, what are the main advantages of driverless cars?
  • Transportation for the elderly, disabled and blind.
  • A decrease in greenhouse gas emissions due to alternative fuel consumption and car sharing services.
  • A far more effective transport system, especially over longer distances and buses – it’s not like the driver will have to stop and go to the toilet or ever call in sick!
  • Issues with drinking and driving should decline dramatically and hopefully be eliminated.
  • Cars moving at a steady pace can improve traffic congestion.
  • Less stress associated with commuting and driving in new places.
  • Safer roads.
  • More independant tourism options.

The big players in robot cars

It’s no surprise to see Google at the forefront of self-driving cars, with computer scientist and robotics developer Sebastian Thrun discussing the issue at a TED presentation four years ago. Just a few weeks back the British media got their first taste of the Google design. These modified Lexus hybrids have been trialled back in California, with a heavy emphasis on safety - a major selling point for Google. But they’re not the only runners in the race, with Mercedes-Benz, Tesla and Nissan all looking to be the first driverless cars off the rank. Sony has also invested 100m Yen in ZMP, a Japanese start-up company focused on robot cars. With the amount of automotive sensors required within the vehicle chassis, the technology giant is well-equipped to deliver.
So, while there is still a great deal of cynicism surrounding the industry, with many people turning up their noses at the idea, the biggest names in business are sensing an opportunity - and they can’t all be wrong!

A sharp dose of reality

However, it is important to remember there are many hurdles that need to be negotiated before driverless cars can move into serious production. One of the main obstacles is public perception and the fear of relying on artificial intelligence. Despite the fact that aeroplanes are powered by machines and have an autopilot function, the driverless concept is still met with trepidation.
There are numerous industries that would be seriously affected, including taxi drivers, public transport workers and truck drivers. And, of course, if there are fewer accidents, then mechanics may be drinking more cups of tea than usual!
It is also necessary to consider the impacts of the resulting freedom. With the unpleasant aspects of driving effectively removed, will more and more people take to the roads? This could put pressure on existing infrastructure and potentially negate some of the positive impacts of greener technology.   
There certainly is a lot to think about. But there appears to be nothing but green lights for the concept, with predictions of a multi-billion-dollar industry within just 10 years. And while the human race may not quite be ready, it appears to be full diesel ahead for the driverless car!