IHS Automotive Report Says ‘Not If, But When’ for Self-Driving Cars

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In Back to the Future, Doc Brown tells Marty McFly, “Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need…roads.” Where (or more precisely, when) were they going? Why, the year 2015. As you may have noticed, we’re nowhere near Mr. Fusion or flying cars.

Robot cars, however, are likely coming to a road near you inside the next decade. And according to a recent IHS Automotive study, 54 million of them will hit the streets worldwide by 2035, and nearly all autos will be driverless by 2050.

We probably don’t have to tell you that forecasting exact numbers 20 and 35 years out is an exercise in futility. The difficulty in forecasting so far out is compounded by the fact that assumptions tend towards the linear, not the exponential.

Do we think there’ll be 54 million self-driving cars on the roads by 2035? Provided, transportation tech doesn’t make an unscheduled u-turn? Sure. We might even call the forecast more than a touch conservative.

Tesla says they're gunning for 90% automation in 2016.

Tesla is gunning for 90% automation in 2016.

But never mind the exact numbers, there’s a more important trend at work: The auto industry at large is increasingly dedicated to bringing commercially viable self-driving technology.

If 2013’s barrage of announcements and press events by major automakers didn’t convince you, consider the IHS paper’s title, “Emerging Technologies: Autonomous Cars—Not If, But When.” That’s from a blue chip auto industry market analyst. No mincing of words there.

Yes, there’s a lot of hype surrounding self-driving tech, and it’s yet to be seen whether it will live up to the biggest promises—but even so, real automation is happening now, and it will dig deeper and get more capable in the coming years.

Beyond trying to nail down cumulative and annual sales numbers in 2035, the IHS report does a good job summing up where the major players are now and where they plan to be in the future. The report ranks self-driving tech from 0 to 5.

Level 0 is, of course, no automation at all. Level 1, where most major automakers offering the technology are now, includes driver initiated systems that maintain a safe following distance and keep the car inside its lane while in cruise control. Other Level 1 capabilities are self-park and automatic emergency braking to avoid collisions.

According to IHS, some models already offer Level 2 automation, where the computer controls two or more functions for autonomy in special situations—gas, brakes, and steering in traffic jams, for example. However, laws requiring drivers to keep hands on the steering wheel at all times renders these Level 2 capabilities "non-operational."


Nissan tests driverless tech on the track.

Several automakers, like Audi, BMW, Nissan, and Mercedes targeted self-driving capabilities by roughly 2020 last year. Others were more aggressive. Tesla, for example, targeted 2016, and Ford promised 2017. According to IHS, the “self-driving” capabilities referenced by these announcements will be Level 3.

Level 3 is full automation in certain situations (highway driving, for example). In contrast with Level 2, drivers cede full control to the computer and are not required to keep eyes on the road at all times. The car will be in charge of giving drivers plenty of time to reassume control when required.

The next step? Full automation. Level 4 and 5 systems will take over every aspect of your trip, door-to-door. Level 4 cars will maintain the ability to shift control to a human driver. But to simplify systems and reduce costs, Level 5 cars won’t allow human control at all. Steering wheels and pedals will go the way of the dodo.

Of those working on self-driving technology, the only firm even talking full automation is Google. IHS says they’re gunning for Level 4 capabilities sometime during or after 2017. To go commercial, they’ll need to find a partner, or as IHS suggests, they may license self-driving software. IHS believes Level 4 and 5 systems will arrive in 2025 and 2030.

Driverless technology is seemingly right around the corner. But even after engineers have solved every practical problem, IHS warns unsecured systems, faulty software, and lollygagging lawmakers may mar or delay mainstream availability.

Self-driving cars, for example, will likely need to go online for position, maps, traffic data, or to talk to other cars on the road. Anything connected to the Internet can be hacked—a serious risk few carmakers have so far adequately planned for.

Further, self-driving systems will have to include redundancy and protocols to safely guide the car to the side of the road should a system fail. The IHS report says, “The [self-driving car] reliability must be at the highest level and when problems occur, a graceful degradation needs to happen to minimize the failure impact.”


Google has been testing self-driving cars on public roads for a few years now.

And as with any new technology, there will be variability product to product. According to IHS, certification, akin to a driver’s license for robot cars, may help ensure a minimum quality standard for approved models.

Also, lawmakers will need to determine the rules and regulations allowing self-driving cars on the road. Down the line, and perhaps in the courts not assemblies, they'll need to tackle issues like legal responsibility in the event of a crash.

There will be human and non-human drivers sharing the road for an extended period. Although in most accidents, the blame will more likely go to the human driver, prone to error, determining liability may not be easy. IHS suggests certain precautions, like including event data recorders that document inclusive camera and sensor data.

Though lawmakers have considered driverless car laws in 18 US states and the District of Columbia, only California, Nevada, Florida, Michigan, and D.C. have approved bills.

Clearly, there's a lot of work yet to be done. But proponents say the benefits will outweigh the costs many times over. Driverless cars promise to increase efficiency, ease traffic, and most importantly, reduce accidents, injuries, and fatalities.

There’s no way to know exactly how it’ll happen or when it’ll happen, but unlike Back to the Future’s flying cars and fusion engines—much of the required technology is either already here or due to arrive soon.

Image Credit: BMWKazuhisa Otsubo/FlickrNissan

Jason Dorrier

Jason is managing editor of Singularity Hub. He cut his teeth doing research and writing about finance and economics before moving on to science, technology, and the future. He is curious about pretty much everything, and sad he'll only ever know a tiny fraction of it all.

Discussion — 13 Responses

  • commandersprocket January 16, 2014 on 9:32 am

    Adoption of driver-less vehicles will take off as soon as they’re commercially available. Once we have driver-less taxi services (and the price of taxi service is accordingly decreased) it will be cheaper to not own a car. Most people want the service of a car (transportation) not the hassle (change the oil, buy insurance, stop for gas, change the tires, etc). Car sharing will be cheaper, move cars towards electric (since the cost per mile will be different with cars being driven by robots for all hours of the day). Not only will their be more driverless cars, but there will be fewer overall cars on the road (you don’t need to rush home to take Johnny to soccer practice if he can call a car and do it himself).

  • Facebook - darth.schmoo January 16, 2014 on 1:29 pm

    It had better be very conservative, because on January 1, 2017, I’m closing my eyes and taking my hands off the wheel.

    • Matthew Facebook - darth.schmoo January 16, 2014 on 10:04 pm


  • John Gehrke January 16, 2014 on 1:32 pm

    I hope sooner than later. Eliminate drunk drivers, asleep drivers, distracted drivers, elderly poor drivers, monitor components for potential failure, automate crash avoidance, improve fuel economy, drastically reduce insurance cost, allow passengers to multitask or relax safely.

  • Optimistically Twisted January 16, 2014 on 2:12 pm

    How much you wanna bet they’ll lease the driving software and charge an environmental fee for batteries every year and many other charges resulting in consumers never “owning” a car. The bottom line/ point I’m “driving” here is that by removing human drivers from vehicles this will result in a monetary boon for corporations and added cost in multiple other ways for the rest of us. Not only will it cost us more money to “own” a car, but it’ll also cost us jobs and some freedom. Level 5 cars should not be allowed. Manual override should always be available for multiple reasons, the most obvious being off-road driving.
    I got a feeling this is less about “getting to the future” and more about the repeating old story of ” the poor get poorer and the rich get richer”.
    We need to overhaul or replace our monetary system. We need to be doing things based on whether it benefits humanity as a whole instead of it being because it profits for a powerful few. The current forecast of our future disgusts me. I’m tired of struggling to be an optimist.

    • Matthew Optimistically Twisted January 16, 2014 on 10:02 pm

      I agree. and i already know what the 2016 presidential election debate will be. ‘you and benghazi’ … ‘nonono you and that bridge’ ~_~; everyone knows that the ecosystem is going to hell, we eat breathe and drink poison, and robots are about to exceed human intelligence and drive our flying cars for us while they steal the rest of our jobs and continue to syphon all of our capital into this new feudal oligarchical system masquerading as capitalism, right? that corporations must be forced to create more employment by us legislating it into reality? (kind of like how we got rid of slavery) and that minimum wage for the few existing jobs needs to be corrected (not raised) to $25 an hour, right? and that biomechanical immortality will be available to the rich (they’re all awesoem people i’ve heard) in about 10 years. right? ok just checking. but it’s cool cuz we have these great skills from college that we can use to scrub toilets and the right to own post industrial weapons of death and not kill each other (cuz that totally never happens) thus extinguishing our other more important right to life with these mass manufactured proliferating guns (1 per every man woman and child in the country, isn’t that neat. it’s like they squeezed as much money possible out of the gun owners… about 300 million one for each of us. even the baby. hell let’s make more for the dog)–getting into crazy people’s hands and resulting in 3 shootings and 9 wounded this week alone in a grocery store, shopping mall, and movie theatre. totally won’t happen to anyone we know. besides it only results in 20 thousand deaths every single year that’s only 5 times as many people who died that one time in 9/11 let’s complain some more about that. and marginally relevant platitudes on character flaws. that will get this country somewhere. god i hate mainstream media.

    • Jane Smith Optimistically Twisted January 17, 2014 on 7:13 am

      A- MEN.

    • flimflam Optimistically Twisted January 18, 2014 on 1:17 pm

      There are several flaws in this. Let me start, however, with what I agree with.

      We certainly live in a world where corporations have entirely too much power. Our congress is bought and paid for in the U.S., and that needs to change. I would love to see much more in the way of large companies that are employee-owned. There are many great examples of very large, successful enterprises that follow this model. I think more regulation preventing corporations from influencing congress would be welcome. I also think we need to do away with this ridiculous concept of “corporations as people”.

      I also agree that manual override is an important thing to have available. I think I would always like to have a “manual override” in my vehicle, and I think most others will decide the same. However, there will likely also be many who choose to purchase level 5 vehicles because they will be cheaper than level 4 vehicles. There will simply be more options on the market. Some will choose to pay the extra cost for level 4 vehicles in order to have the option to drive when they want to (and in off-road situations). Many will choose this option because they need to be able to drive off road or in other non-standard situations for work. However, others will choose level 5 because they determine that the cost savings is worth it.

      Now let me state where I disagree.

      It is absolutely fallacious to say that ”the poor get poorer and the rich get richer”. We are all getting richer. Fantastically richer.

      Do you realize what the world was like just 40 years ago? The average home size has doubled. The average family owns several cars. How many times a week do you eat out? Forty years ago, if you were a typical middle class family, you simply did not eat out. You also didn’t buy great food and make a great meal at home. You cooked your own meals and you penny pinched. You bought bread and butter and cheap meats and you made it all count.

      The average family 40 years ago had a single t.v. Today, every family member owns fantastic electronic devices which can grab any type of information they want (including entertainment), on demand.

      Keep in mind I am only comparing us to 40 years ago. One hundred years ago there were no safety nets at all. A recession like the recent one literally could have caused many to starve to death or end up begging. Society simply could not afford a social safety net. Now we can. (and if you think that it is simply because of debt, I have entirely different arguments for that which are too long to go into here, but there are a lot of reasons why our national debt really isn’t much of a concern to me)

      Go back 1000 years. We live like kings did a thousand years ago.

      You say: “The bottom line/ point I’m ‘driving’ here is that by removing human drivers from vehicles this will result in a monetary boon for corporations and added cost in multiple other ways for the rest of us.”

      The only way that self driving cars will take off is if people choose to use them. They will choose to use them if they find that they bring a great benefit to their lives. They likely will, because these cars will allow them to do other things on trips. They will be able to be productive, or have important face to face conversations with their family members, or catch up on the news (i.e., be more informed citizens). Of course many will use the extra time to catch up on celebrity gossip or watch brainless entertainment, but society has always had and likely always will have dregs who concern themselves only with trivial things (100 years ago the average person was also not extremely intelligent or concerned, they were often just as concerned with local gossip and trivialities).

      Back to my main point about self driving cars: they will only be popular if they are found to be beneficial. Even if they did become more costly, as you say, people would only use them if they found the benefit to be worth the extra money. Fewer people would choose to use them, because if they are more costly, then people will be more likely to decide the the extra cost to extra benefit ratio is too high.

      I also see no reason why people would choose to only ever lease these cars. I see people being just as likely to own them as they do today, unless, of course, the cars are much more expensive than their manual counterparts (a recent independent study found that by 2035 they are not likely to be more expensive than manual cars). If that is the case then my argument above still applies. People will only choose to pay the extra money if they find it to bring a significant benefit to their lives.

      Corporations can only charge extra for the same product/service in two situations:

      1.) They have a monopoly

      2.) The government introduces regulations that enable them to do so.

      Otherwise competition forces them not to do so. Self-driving car manufacturers will compete with each other, and self-driving cars will compete with their manual counterparts for a very long time to come. This means that people get to choose what they want for their future. If these cars are found to be beneficial, then they will become the primary vehicles on the road. People will only purchase them if the cost/benefit ratio is not too high. I can envision NO situation in which this “will result in a monetary boon for corporations and added cost in multiple other ways for the rest of us” unless government intervenes to intentionally create higher costs / give car manufacturers an unfair advantage. This is not likely. As I said above, the corporate control of government right now is a very bad thing. However, I have never seen it progress the the types of levels that you indicate could occur. Even if the government outlawed traditional vehicles, there would still be a competitive marketplace amongst self-driving cars that drives prices down. The government is still (to some degree) kept in-check by the people (see examples like SOPA). I think it needs to be kept in check more and I think there is certainly a danger for us going in the wrong direction.

      However, I also see people waking up to these issues. Every day I see political posts on my facebook wall from people I haven’t seen in years and who I don’t know very well personally. They are bringing light to scandals that likely would never have seen the light of day 30 years ago in the entirely-mass-media-controlled newspapers and 30 minute local news. I see people caring more and limiting the actions of their government at increasing levels. Lack of privacy goes both ways, and the government today also has less privacy than it ever has due to the increased communication of its citizens. Today, more than ever, I see people taking action (see the Alien and Sedition acts of John Adams, or the “patriot act” type legislation that Lincoln enacted during the civil war for an example of the types of things our government used to get away with).

      Don’t misunderstand me. The majority of people are still only concerned with the superficial. But then again, they always have been. We have a tendency to think people were smarter 100 years ago because we read very intelligent statements that were written from that time. Well, that is also fallacious. The type of writing that survives for a hundred years is naturally going to be the intellectually compelling. One hundred years ago we had just as many uninformed, trivially-minded people, if not more. Those people have been forgotten about. The people who thought about issues and spoke up made a difference, and that is what gets remembered. It will be the same way for our generation.

      Those who don’t want to be informed have more capability than ever to ignore weighty issues and live in their superficial bubbles. Those who want to be informed are more informed than ever (i.e., snowden revelations seeing the light of day despite big media trying to suppress it) and we ARE speaking up and we ARE being heard.

      • Matthew flimflam January 19, 2014 on 2:45 pm

        sir flimflam,
        I agree with everyone you say pretty much except the part about there not being an increasing gap between rich and poor which there is, at least in the united states. yes it is a new modern era with smartphones and crowd funding and increased health coverage etc etc etc new safety nets that help somewhat, but when we factor in inflation, we do in fact (on average) make LESS than our parents did per hour on average– and according to recent studies if it were corrected (again, not raised, corrected to reflect the inflation increase) it would be up near $25/hr. why would anyone argue against that? especially the CEO’s they stand to make far more profit with more active participants in the economy. no it won’t make milk $20 a gallon because inflation doesn’t increase quite that quickly but minimum wage needs corrected from where it was frozen in the late 70s (min wage WAS increasing proportionally with corporate profits before then, and then stopped because of some stupid extremist legislation) because that’s the difference in inflation we’ve experienced since then.

        ultimately I know from reading books like singularity is near and abundance: the future is better than you think–that you are right and we live in an era of proliferating material abundance and human rights. but the fact that the richest country in the world with exponentially rising GDP (just like the world as a whole), has poverty on the INCREASE… when it has never been easier for basic human rights like food, education, clothing, shelter and healthcare free for everyone (which economists know would benefit our economy and that’s why we have those social programs) … is an abysmal *expletive* failure. similarly, the fact that human rights are flourishing here more than anywhere yet we have this completely asinine “right” to own post industrial machines of death which are also proliferating. just like poverty in crease in the US we also have increase of mass killings because of those guns. yes all types of crime are declining like homicides, hate crimes, etc etc etc EXCEPT mass killing which is actually increasing in the same type of stark contrast as our increasing poverty in the face of record profits.

        yes on average we’re all doing better. but to those many many remaining people who work at two fast food resturants and STILL can’t feed their families or even consider an education and are likely already several 10 thousand dolars in debt from college or healthcare problems… to the many people still suffering and dying in those circumstances, and in these mass shootings–their life is ONE HUNDRED PERCENT a living hell like nobody in human history could even fathom, (despite the fact that everyone on average is doing better) and it’s not right. and it can be fixed with marginal amounts of capital from the corporate that WE the consumer class have created.

  • Jane Smith January 17, 2014 on 6:21 am

    And who is going to pay for this technology? I just don’t see the need. Safety advancements, highway autopilot, autobraking? Sure, those things I welcome to save lives, efficiency and traffic jams.. But do I really need the car to pull into my driveway for me? Do I need it to pick me up in front of the store? Aren’t we all fat enough in this country as it is? And how will the state make money off of the working class anymore (instead of stopping actual crime, which is in serious need right now) if no one is able to speed? I know there are tons of idiots on the road, and they all suck. But we wouldn’t need to blow all this money if we made driver training and license testing MUCH more difficult than it is. Right now any retard can get a license, and that’s the main problem.

    • Nolux Jane Smith January 19, 2014 on 9:02 am

      How short sighted!
      this is fantasic technology that will allow more mobility and drastically reduce death and injury.
      I dont understand you people.

      • Matthew Nolux January 19, 2014 on 10:03 am

        I agree with you nolux–by the way. just took the opportunity to go on a tangent about economic inequality and as Obama put it the other day when he spoke about the NSA “the dizzying speed with which technology is accelerating and the world is changing” are very important and not mentioned enough in the news. I am all about human rights and i know how contraversial this is. but still, back to the topic of automated vehicles, it will probably only be available to the rich first. which is frustrating in that it is unfair and not everyone is able to articulate precisely how this will happen but know that it probably will. just like how self parking and detecting obstacles are only available in luxury cars right now.

      • Mark Soto Nolux March 3, 2014 on 8:22 pm

        This tech will be very good. It will also change law enforcement. Cops won’t have to watch for speeders and Drunk Drivers after this tech. is in almost all cars. While we will always need cops I wonder how many police officers we will need after this tech. comes out and how many jobs cops will lose.