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Speedbumps on way to driverless world

Are European manufacturers in danger of being left in the dust, as US regulatory conditions currently prove more favorable to pushing deeper into automation? Janelle Dumalaon reports from the Geneva Motor Show.

An interesting forecast: industry observers predict that when self-driving cars finally come, the uptake will be faster in warmer countries - if only because weather conditions are less complex, and therefore there's less for a car to process as it runs unmanned.

But the race towards increased connectivity and finally automation is going to be decided by a lot more than the weather. And the world's carmakers have been going head-to-head to get their connectivity features up to speed.

For many cars about to enter the market, embedded infotainment systems or connective functions allowing smartphone use via the dashboard, like Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, are the first foray into the brave new world of all-encompassing connectivity.

At the Geneva Motor Show, they've become par for the course. Ferrari's GTC4 Lusso has a 10.25 full HD touchscreen and connectivity via Apple CarPlay. The new Mercedes-Benz- E-class boasts a smart safety function in the form of the fastest accident-avoidance braking systems any of its models has ever had.

Mercedes Benz F015

Mercedes is also part of the push for autonomous driving with its F015 concept car

But the rest of the world has some catching up to do.

Several market segments

The market is divided into about three areas, according to Communications Director Darrin Shewchuk of Harman, a connected car product maker.

"About 25 percent of the vehicles have some sort of embedded infotainment system, a navigation system or connectivity-oriented system inside the dashboard. Another 25 percent would have a basic phone jack connection, but not necessarily a navigation system or connectivity," said Shewcuk. "And still about 50 percent of the market globally has nothing at all."

Car companies on both sides of the Atlantic are for the most part making strides into the connected future. European premium manufacturers like BMW, Volvo and Mercedes are all actively pursuing driverless car projects, and updating their vehicles with semi-autonomous technology every now and again. US automakers are also on the ball. Ford, for instance, has also just announced it would have the largest test fleet of autonomous cars this year.

But it may be European vehicle safety authorities who may end up slowing this new kind of push into modernity - their American counterparts are moving faster. Just last month, the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) said the artificial intelligence system steering a self-driving Google Car could be considered the driver by law - an important legal clarification to make in ultimately assuring approval for driverless cars.

Losing ground?

Ferdinand Dudenhöffer from the CAR-Center of Automative Research at Germany's University of Duisburg Essen said European countries like Germany ran the risk of being left behind.

Watch video 05:04

Self-driving cars advancing fast

"While yesterday's cars are tinkered with in Brussels in order to understand Dieselgate and the failure of all European authorities, the US is already at the next level," he said.

But others argue it's impossible to tell which carmaker will overtake all its fellows on the road to autonomous driving. Indeed, the competition is much more easily framed, with the traditional auto industry coming up against tech companies at the forefront of automated transport, like Google and Apple.

"This is a fight that will go on for a while," said automotive industry analyst Stefan Bratzel of the FHDW University of Applied Sciences in Bergisch Gladbach, Germany. "I'd still say each side has about a 50:50 chance of winning."

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