Self-driving cars aren't expected to begin hitting the road until 2020, but a new study predicts that once they're here, they will quickly become a common sight.
By 2035, nearly 54 million autonomous vehicles will be in consumers' driveways worldwide and annual sales of the vehicles will reach almost 12 million, according to the study by IHS Automotive. After 2050, the study predicts that nearly all of the vehicles in use -- both personal and commercial -- will be self-driving.
One of the biggest impacts from such widespread use of self-driving cars (SDCs) will be safety, according to the study's co-author, Egil Juliussen.
"Accident rates will plunge to near zero for SDCs," said Juliussen, a principal analyst for infotainment and autonomous driver-assisted systems at IHS Automotive.
Though human-driven cars will still crash into autonomous vehicles, "as the market share of SDCs on the highway grows, overall accident rates will decline steadily," Juliussen said.
Traffic and air pollution will also decline as a result of self-driving cars because their driving patterns will be programmed to minimize their impact on the environment, Juliussen said.
The IHS study projects that worldwide sales of self-driving cars will rise from around 230,000 in 2025 to 11.8 million in 2035. Seven million of those vehicles will allow both driver and autonomous control, while the other 4.8 will be autonomous control only, IHS estimates.
Globally, North America will have the largest share of SDCs in 2035, with 29%, while China and Western Europe will account for 24% and 20%, respectively, according to the study.
Yet there will be several hurdles autonomous vehicles will need to clear in the coming decades, the study predicts.
The costs of these technologies will be among the biggest obstacles to their widespread adoption, according to the study. As with many technologies, fully autonomous driving will be available in the luxury segment first, and then trickle down to more common vehicles, the study says. We can already see this happening with self-driving elements today.
Luxury nameplates like Acura, Mercedes-Benz, Infiniti, Lincoln, Audi and BMW currently offer radar-based cruise control and lane-keeping assist, two early components of autonomous driving.
When true SDCs start hitting luxury-vehicle dealer lots between 2020 and 2025, IHS forecasts the features will add $7,000 to $10,000 to purchase prices. By 2030, this premium will drop to around $1,000 for entry-level cars.
Also crucial will be automakers' attention to the threat of cyber security, which isn't yet adequate according to the study. Because these autonomous vehicles will communicate with one another wirelessly, IHS says it will be possible to hack into these cars' networks and electronic systems.
"There is no question that electronics of the car will become a target for malicious hacking attacks," the study says. "Every auto manufacturer needs to take cyber security seriously -- which has not been a focus in the past."
Legal issues surrounding self-driving cars will also need to be addressed. Michigan recently became only the fourth state in the U.S. to allow the testing of self-driving cars, behind California, Nevada and Florida. Yet each of these states requires that a licensed, capable driver be ready to take control of the vehicle at any moment.
To get to a point where vehicles will assume full control without the possibility of driver input will take significant changes to state and federal laws. "These laws will be needed before 2020 or the lack thereof will slow the introduction of self-driving cars," the IHS study says.