AI in transport: an illustration of a lasting European power
At the end of September, the world’s first autonomous tram, developed by Siemens, travelled safely through the city of Potsdam in Germany. Equipped with intelligent cameras with video recognition systems, the tram can react to ground signals and respond to hazards faster than a human being. In parallel, the SNCF and its partners have announced autonomous trains within five years, thus becoming the first company to operate autonomous trains for both freight and passenger transport and placing France at the forefront of innovation in the sector.
These two examples illustrate Europe’s growing lead in the intelligent transport market. Admittedly, Europe has a stronger and older tradition of developing public transport than America, but it would seem that even today, despite the media hype around Tesla’s intelligent cars, Europe is maintaining its lead. Although sales of the Tesla Model 3 are promising in the United States (top 5 of car sales in August 2018), French automakers still have a large share of the market, with the Renault Zoé, for example, now the world’s best-selling electric car.
At the recent Paris Motor Show, Carlos Ghosn confirmed his lead in electric cars and presented a solid development plan for connected, autonomous and robotic vehicles. While these were simple prototypes two years ago, they are now structured programs that can, in his opinion, generate more revenue and profitability than the rest of the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance’s activities. Besides, Navya, a French company specialising in the design and manufacture of autonomous, electric and robotised vehicles, has also designed the “Autonom Shuttle”, a shuttle already available for sale, as well as the “Autonom Cab”, the first autonomous robotaxi.
Meanwhile, Elon Musk is facing serious difficulties in managing Tesla. His dismissal from the position of chairman of the company’s board of directors a few days ago for communication reasons narrowly follows the production turmoil of the Tesla 3. These models produced in a Californian factory in Fremont are currently made in a tent, on the car park, in an essentially manual process, when the factory was supposed to be the most automated in the world – “the machine that manufactures the machine”. Musk admitted his failure by stating that “excessive robotization has been a total fiasco”. These problems are compounded by considerable and growing financial losses. Indeed, in the fourth quarter of 2017, Tesla reported a net loss of $675.4 million. Their business model thus seems increasingly questionable, to the point that LMC Automotive predicts a loss of 12% to 3% of the electric vehicle market for Tesla within five years, while the Germans will hold more than 20%.
Similarly, Uber is in difficulty. One of their autonomous cars was filmed running a red light, and more importantly, a fatal accident occurred last March in Arizona when one of their autonomous cars hit a passer-by. The firm responded by ordering the suspension of testing in several American states.
Today, all signals seem to be on the green for Europe to catch up with its lost lead over the United States in the field of transport, and to gain a head start over its competitors. With its historical expertise – the first metros were built in London in 1863 and the first automatic metros in Lille in 1983, Europe remains a pioneer in public transport, and in particular France with the TGV, which today is ranked 4th best rail network in the world after Japan, South Korea and China.
This European industrial expertise has built up over the centuries, enabling it to acquire an ambitious but realistic state of mind, rooted in experience, and thus to carry out very large-scale industrial projects. It is too early to say whether Europe will be able to impose its leadership on the production of autonomous vehicles, but whether in the case of electric cars or public transport, Europe’s industrial expertise and its principle of realism could well make it a leading figure in the new generation of intelligent transport.