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Towards the autonomous car: A transformative evolution in the automotive world

At the turn of the 20th century, the car was a luxury privilege, a status symbol reserved for a wealthy elite. Designed to speed up travel, they were more a lavish accessory than a common means of transport. However, 1908 would mark a major turning point, as visionary engineer Henry Ford would rewrite automotive history with his revolutionary Model T.

Produced on an unprecedented scale, the Model T changed the face of the automotive industry by democratizing access to cars. Ford's vision was based on a simple but ingenious calculation: speed up production to make cars more affordable to the general public. This bold decision ushered in an era of mass production, turning the car from a luxury item reserved for a privileged elite into a mainstream consumer good.

The relative devaluation of the object, resulting from its democratization, created a societal phenomenon. The car, once a symbol of social distinction, has become a ubiquitous means of transport in everyday life. However, this ubiquity has been accompanied by new challenges, such as the increasing saturation of traffic in cities and growing concern about the air pollution caused by combustion vehicles. Today's driving challenges

Over the decades, the car has evolved from a simple mobility device to an integral part of the modern lifestyle. Unfortunately, this transformation has also given rise to problems that society is facing today. Traffic congestion in metropolises like Paris has become a daily reality, resulting in considerable time loss for drivers, a phenomenon exacerbated during rush hour.

Current statistics paint an alarming picture: Parisian drivers lose an average of 70 hours a year in traffic jams. During rush hour, the same journey that would be covered at an average speed of 70 km/h takes 52% longer, when speed is reduced to 38 km/h. A real challenge for traffic flow and a source of frustration for urban dwellers.

The increase in vehicle numbers has also given rise to a parking search problem, with one car in five actively looking for a parking space. This problem is further exacerbated by the prediction that two-thirds of the world's population will live in urban areas by 2050, intensifying the pressure on existing transport infrastructures.

Despite these challenges, the imaginary world of the car remains intact. It continues to represent the promise of total freedom for drivers, the ability to travel over all types of terrain, regardless of weather conditions. However, day-to-day reality reveals that the modern car has become dependent on fuel, energy and technical maintenance, creating an almost vital need for citizens living on the outskirts of urban areas.

In cities, the car has become the primary source of air pollution inhaled by residents. According to the Agence Française de Sécurité Sanitaire Environnementale (AFSSE), air pollution, of which cars account for a third, is responsible for the deaths of between 6,500 and 9,500 people in France every year. In megacities, smog has become a chronic threat, jeopardizing public health.

Fascination with driving remains an undeniable element of automotive culture. The pleasure of mastering a complex machine, of aiming for perfection in the art of driving, has created a symbiosis between man and car. The car has become an extension of the body, suggesting an identity that aligns with the human experience of driving. Car racing, circuits and the fastest drivers continue to fuel this passion, offering an experience that transcends the simple necessity of getting around.

However, these moments of pleasure and freedom are accompanied by a grim reality. Every year around the world, 1.3 million people are killed on the roads, with between 20 and 50 million injured. In France alone, in 2015, 3,464 people were killed and 70,542 injured in car accidents. A disturbing statistic that underlines the fragility of today's road safety, largely influenced by human error, responsible for 90% of accidents.

The Silent Evolution Towards Automation

Faced with numerous challenges, autonomous vehicles emerge as a potential solution. Currently, new vehicles already incorporate several driving assistance tools, such as ABS and EPS, aiming to correct human errors and enhance road safety. Today's car represents a synthesis of standards and regulations that influence road safety, seeking to automate the vehicle progressively.

In this transition to autonomous vehicles, a clear definition emerges. An autonomous vehicle is equipped with an automatic piloting system, capable of circulating without human intervention in real traffic conditions. Further exploration of this constantly evolving field necessitates an analysis of existing autonomous vehicle models and prospective "concept" models:

For manufacturers, the challenges of autonomous vehicles seem to focus on comfort and safety. As for concept cars, they are limited to enhancing the individual driver's experience, with seats that swivel, partially disappearing steering wheels, and larger screens for more entertainment options or improved work on board.

A sense arises: If we concentrate solely on transforming the vehicle without considering the infrastructure—our cities and streets tailored for driver-operated vehicles—might we risk missing out on a true revolution?

A Systemic Approach

Questioning the car of tomorrow is also questioning its environment. By examining the city shaped by the car for a century, the debate on the potential influence of autonomous vehicles in urban spaces becomes crucial for designing the vehicle of tomorrow. Paying attention to the space dedicated to cars while strolling through the streets of Paris, observing the ring road, narrow alleys, and sidewalks, reveals the omnipresent dominance of human-driven cars in urban spaces. Even nighttime lighting highlights the road, emphasizing the priority given to drivers rather than pedestrians.

In-depth scientific research shows that introducing shared autonomous vehicle services could significantly reduce urban traffic density. Computer simulations predict that only a third of autonomous vehicles would be needed to handle the current traffic density, promising increased fluidity through communication networks between vehicles and infrastructure.

Moreover, cars with drivers are immobile 90% of the time, occupying parking spaces. Experiments and calculations conducted by researchers have shown that with a shared autonomous car service, we could free up the space dedicated to parking corresponding to the surface area of the 15th arrondissement of Paris. This underscores the transformative systemic potential offered by autonomous vehicles in rethinking the use of urban space.

Before pondering the comfort of an autonomous car passenger, we must contemplate how we can integrate this technology to improve our cities. It involves using the freed-up space to allow citizens to reclaim urban space, their streets, and neighborhoods.


The transition from the traditional car to the autonomous car has already begun, offering the promise of a radical transformation in the way we think about mobility. However, if we are content simply to replace current vehicles with autonomous models without a profound rethink of our infrastructures and a systemic reflection, we risk missing out on a crucial opportunity to solve persistent car-related problems.

Simply replacing human drivers with sophisticated algorithms is only part of the equation. To truly harness the potential of the autonomous car, it is imperative to adopt a holistic approach, rethinking the entire transportation system. Urban infrastructures must be adapted to accommodate these new entities, promoting harmonious coexistence between pedestrians, cyclists and autonomous vehicles.

The autonomous car offers a unique opportunity to rethink our relationship with mobility, reduce urban congestion, minimize harmful emissions, and improve road safety. However, to realize these benefits, it is essential to consider the autonomous car as part of a wider ecosystem.

Investing in in-depth research, developing visionary urban policies and integrating emerging technologies into a broader context of sustainable development are essential steps. The autonomous car should not be seen as a simple replacement, but as an opportunity to rethink the way we live in cities and design more sustainable, connected and efficient urban environments.

Sources :

  1. Henry Ford's Model T and the Making of America's Middle Class (2017) - James Rubenstein.

  2. Statistiques de la circulation à Paris - Observatoire de la Mobilité en Île-de-France.

  3. Rapport de l'Agence Française de Sécurité Sanitaire Environnementale (AFSSE) sur la pollution atmosphérique.

  4. Recherches scientifiques sur la voiture autonome - MIT Technology Review et IEEE Transactions on Intelligent Transportation Systems.


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