How Many Autonomous Cars Will be on the Road in 2025?

Count von Count

Like Sesame Street’s Count von Count, industry analysts have a compulsive love of counting things.

One favorite item to count has been Internet of Things devices or “things.” This metric has proven elusive, and, as I opined numerous times before, mostly irrelevant, because the mere number of IoT devices deployed globally does not signify the business value they provide. In other words, more devices do not mean greater business value.

Conversely, connected and automated cars (CAVs) is a good example of more-is-better. More connected, safer, and, eventually, autonomous cars will improve the efficiency of urban transportation systems and reduce private vehicle ownership, thereby preventing crashes, easing traffic congestion and reducing carbon footprint.

Today, industry analysts are again at work counting objects. They are busy forecasting how many autonomous cars will be on the roads in the next decade and use the anticipated growth in sales of autonomous cars as the unrefutable harbinger of a future of frictionless transportation and minimally congested and smoother traffic.

Just as forecasting growth in the number of IoT devices isn’t an indication of a commensurate increase in business value (adoption of Industrial IoT is still lagging behind analysts’ expectations), so the increased number of connected vehicles will not translate immediately to noticeable improvements in urban traffic.

First, The Good News

Safer cars, from rapidly evolving ADAS-equipped automobiles to fully autonomous vehicles will reduce fatalities, injuries and property damage. And since 30 to 50 percent of all peak-period delays are caused by crashes, CAVs will also contribute significantly to reducing traffic delays.

CAVs will allow more traffic to flow through the existing road infrastructure by maintaining much shorter (but safe) following distances between vehicles than human-driven cars.

Other benefits realized by connected cars is the more efficient use of intersections and roundabouts, cooperative lane changes and others flow-improving tactics. And self-parking cars will offer not only convenience but will also increase the utilization of parking facilities.

But There’s a Catch

Intuitive thinking suggests that substantial benefits are not achievable unless most cars are equipped with high levels of connectivity and automation, and CAVs represent a large enough portion of the overall traffic. Indeed, simulation results show that CAVs will improve traffic flow significantly only with sufficiently high penetration rate.

A study shows that during peak delay periods, low penetration of CAVs (less than 25 percent) will not results in a discernible improvement in traffic conditions. But when penetration rate reaches 50 percent, average delay time will improve by 7 percent, and to 17 percent improvement at 75 percent penetration. When the entire fleet is fully automated, simulation predicts 40 percent reduction in traffic delays.

Another study suggests that for signalized intersections and roundabouts, CAV penetration rates greater than 50 percent will reduce the number of conflicts by 20  to 65 percent.

The Future Is Far Away

Based on these simulation studies and numerous others, it is clear the question is not how many CAVs are going to be sold by 2025, but, rather, when will there be a critical mass of Level 3, 4 and 5 vehicles that will generate the desired impact on urban traffic.

So, how many autonomous cars will be on the road in 2025 and what will be their share of the entire fleet?

Forecasts of the number of autonomous vehicles in 2025 vary widely, reminiscent of the excitement over counting Internet of Thing devices. By one estimate,  by 2020, there will be 10 million self-driving cars and more than 250 million smart cars on public roads. Another forecast suggests that by 2030, there will be some 21 million autonomous vehicles in operation in the U.S., up from 2 million is 2020. And a more modest opinion suggests only 600,000 cars in 2025, but surging to 4.5 million units in 2030.

The number of light-duty vehicles in operation in the U.S. in 2025 is expected to be nearly 300 million. Furthermore, the average age of the fleet is nearly 12 years old and it is getting event older as the rate of new car sales appear to be on a long-term decline. Based on these numbers, reaching an adequate concentration of autonomous cars will take time and it does not appear that by 2025 CAVs will contribute significantly to improving traffic and parking.

We do expect CAV penetration rate to be significantly faster in urban areas, driven primarily by mobility companies and dedicated geographically-limited services. But, again, considering the large number of conventional vehicles in urban areas, the impact of these fleets will be minimal, unless they are given dedicated operation routes and facilities. The mix of human and autonomous operators may become yet another hindrance, as human drivers try to mimic the behavior and capabilities of autonomous cars.

Image: Count von Count (Sesame Street, 1972)