In just five years, cars should be driving themselves on the freeway, as long as regulations can keep up with the advancing technology, according to German-industrial conglomerate Robert Bosch Group.
The forecast is in line with Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk's prediction that the technology for fully autonomous cars—those that require no driver supervision—will be ready by about 2020.
For Bosch, this should mean deeper investment—and greater revenues—in driver assistance systems, as well as development of advanced automated driving products, something its engineers have been working on since 2011 at locations in Palo Alto, California and Abstatt, Germany. The company's mobility unit—by far its largest business sector in North America—provides technology for automobiles, as well as off-highway applications, two-wheelers, shipping, and rail transportation.
The boom in driver assistance systems, such as predictive emergency braking and lane departure warnings, is propelling the industry towards automated driving. For instance, Bosch's sales in driver assistance systems is already increasing by a third every year, according to Dr. Dirk Hoheisel, a member of Bosch's board of management. Sales in this field are expected to exceed 1 billion euros (about $1.09 billion) in 2016, Hoheisel says.
Earlier this month, Bosch reported that its mobility business unit—which has a customer list that includes Google, Tesla Motors, and Porsche—saw sales in North America grow nearly 10% to $8 billion in 2014. The mobility unit accounted for more than 70% of the $11.3 billion in total consolidated sales in the region.
Bosch has responded to demand by hiring hundreds of engineers to work on driver assistance tech. About 2,000 engineers are working on refining driver assistance systems at Bosch. That's a good 700 more than just two years ago.
The progress toward self-driving cars could stall—or at least slow—if countries don't create a legal framework at the pace of technological development. In many countries, highly automated driving—in which the system can handle all situations in a defined case, but the driver is ready to take the controls—isn't legal thanks to rules outlined in the Vienna Convention on Road Traffic of 1968.
In the U.S., self driving cars are legal because they've never been outlawed. Eventually, the lack of federal rules will become an obstacle. It's already prompted some states to come up with their own rules as companies including Google, Audi, Daimler and Tesla test automated driving tech. If Bosch's prediction is going to come true, automated cars may first have to navigate a tangled web of state-by-state and country-by-country regulations, rather than swiftly take off under unified guidelines.