Maybe I've been reading too many public relations press releases from Israel's smart car companies but I'm rapidly coming to the conclusion that we'll be seeing self-driving cars dominating our roads sooner rather than later.
The main reason why self-driving cars will very quickly become a reality, is the brutal carnage on our roads. We may instinctively bridle at the notion of letting computers loose with the steering wheel, but the numbers make it clear that humans do a poor job. It is an oft cited statistic that more people have been killed on Israel's roads than in all the country's wars and terror attacks put together. About 35,000 people have been killed on Israel's roads since the establishment of the State compared with about 25,000 in wars and terror.
Worldwide 1.25 million people are killed on the roads each year, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), and up to 50 million are injured or disabled. At the same time the WHO tells us that 1.9 million people die every year in violence - war, terror and crime.
Throughout history mankind was reconciled to the tragic fact that most people died young. If some sort of illness didn't get them, then starvation or war likely would. If they were lucky they reached old age (over 40).
But in modern times, at least in the west, death before the age of 70 and even 80 is becoming a rarer and rarer event. War, terror and crime remain problems requiring very complex political and social solutions, while disease covers a diverse spectrum that is being slowly but surely overcome. Road accidents remain a huge scourge for which the technology to prevent them is close at hand.
For this reason western governments find the idea of driverless cars highly attractive and have been quick to promote experiments by the likes of Google. The thousands of hours clocked up by these cars have produced very encouraging results.
Moreover, driverless cars and in subsequent phases car-sharing, especially in major cities, would dramatically reduce pollution and the need to carve ever wider highways through our cities and countryside.
All this offers an incredible economic opportunity for Israel's high-tech sector - an opportunity which it is already exploiting - as witnessed by last month's $15.3 billion acquisition of vehicle sensor developer Mobileye by Intel.
Since then, two Israeli startups developing chips for car communications and connectivity have completed major financing rounds - Valens raised $60 million and AutoTalks raised $30 million - while otonomo, which has developed a platform for data exchange between cars, raised $20 million, while Foresight Autonomous Holdings, which develops video cameras to prevent accidents, raised $12 million on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange (TASE). And cyber security for cars will be a major requirement with Israeli startups Argus, TowerSec (acquired by Harman) and Karamba among companies rapidly gaining in value.
The car manufacturers were not so quick to climb aboard the push for driverless cars. After all, less accidents would reduce the sale of new cars and parts and the possibility of car sharing even more so. But the realization that companies like Google might muscle in on the car-making market persuaded the automakers that they have no alternative.
This has also been good news for Israel with carmakers setting up development centers in the country. General Motors has more than 200 employees in its Israel development center and other international manufacturers including Ford, Peugeot and Chinese automaker SAIC. Intel, which has converted Mobileye into its Automated Driving Group headquartered in Jerusalem, is working with BMW for serial production of driverless cars by 2020.
Israeli companies are also part of other aspects of the transport revolution. Traffic navigation app Waze, bought by Google for $1 billion in 2013, has been funneling traffic away from congested roads for years. Gett, which last year attracted a $300 million investment from Volkswagen, and Via, which raised $100 million last year, as well as MoveIt and Waze, have developed platforms and apps for ordering taxis and car sharing.
Once computer operated driverless cars have proven beyond doubt how clearly superior they are to humans in preventing damage to life, limb and vehicles, not to mention the environmental advantages, it may not be so long before driving cars is even outlawed, at least in the densely populated cities and on busy inter-city highways.
Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes-online.com - on April 18, 2017
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