Autonomous vehicles and their potential for strengthening U.S. - Turkish business relations

By Catherine Murphy 

Overview of Autonomous Vehicles 

Autonomous vehicles (AVs) refer broadly to a category of vehicles that use artificial intelligence and other technologies to drive independently. These vehicles have been developed for a variety of purposes, including freight transit, public transportation, and personal consumer use. Over the last decade and particularly in the last few years, autonomous vehicles have been hailed by many in the technology and automotive industries as the future of driving. 

Generally speaking, the purpose of developing AVs is to improve pedestrian and driver safety, extend the freedom of driving to people who cannot operate a vehicle, and improve vehicle efficiency. The Coalition for Future Mobility, a U.S.-based group dedicated to AVs, states that, “[AV’s] greatest promise may be reducing the devastation of impaired driving, drugged driving, unbelted vehicle occupants, speeding and distraction”. 

AVs sometimes get mislabeled as “self-driving” cars, but that is largely inaccurate, as most autonomous technology involves some kind of human intervention. There are six different levels of automation as defined by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE), ranging from 0-5. Level 0 automation refers to vehicles that are entirely human operated, and level 5 automation refers to vehicles that operate entirely autonomously in all conditions and locations. Although difficult to say due with certainty to the rapidly advancing nature of the field and the confidentiality of industry testing, it does not appear at this time that any vehicle has successfully functioned at Level 5 of automation. This has led some experts to wonder if that level of automation is even feasible. 

Although autonomous vehicles are a relatively new technology, many are already out in the world, including consumer AVs available to the general public. Notably, the U.S.-based company Tesla has been the leader in the development of market-ready AVs for personal use. Tesla uses a suite of technologies in their “auto-pilot” function, that allow the vehicle to steer, move lanes, and brake on its own in certain scenarios. Even with these features, due to the need for intervention by a driver in case of emergency, their highest-functioning vehicle only operates at SAE level 2. Many companies, like Lyft, Waymo, and Aurora (which took over Uber’s AV project), have opted to take a different route and develop AVs for ride-sharing and public transportation purposes. Still other companies have been developing AVs for the purposes of freight transport. The Swedish company Einride, for example, has developed an autonomous carrier vehicle for transporting goods. Overall, AVs have the potential to radically alter not just the personal driving sphere, but also areas of public transportation, ride-sharing, food delivery, and cargo transportation.

Autonomous Vehicles in Turkey 

Turkey has long been striving to develop a domestically-produced car, beginning in 1961 with an attempt to build a vehicle called the “Devrim”. Although the Devrim project did not achieve scalable success, in late 2019, Turkey was successful in the endeavour to develop a domestic car. Turkey’s Automobile Joint Venture Group (TOGG), a consortium of five major Turkish industrial firms, announced the release of a fully domestic SUV and sedan. President Ergodan said that it was “the fruition of a 60 year-long dream”. 

Turkey’s push to develop a domestically-produced car is part of a long-standing goal to develop automotive technology as a whole in a show of economic strength. Autonomous vehicles appear to be an increasingly critical part of this push, particularly as AV technology can be used to be more environmentally conscious. In February 2021, the Daily Sabah reported that Turkey’s first autonomous bus debuted. The bus was made by the Turkish company Karsan in collaboration with Istanbul Technical University, and holds about fifty passengers. President Erdogan attended the unveiling and remarked that the bus represents “initial steps for clean energy”

Another Turkish company, Otokar, has been working towards developing an autonomous bus. In January of 2021, the company passed the second phase of testing. Otokar is a leader in electric vehicle development in Turkey, releasing the first electric bus in 2013. Electric vehicle technology and AV technology typically go hand-in-hand due to the energy needs of AV sensors and other parts. 

While it is difficult to pinpoint exact attitudes towards AVs in Turkey due to the lack of research and emerging nature of the technology, the push that President Erdogan has made towards developing autonomous vehicles suggests that the expansion of AVs is both of public interest as well as public fascination. 

Autonomous Vehicles in the United States

The United States has long been a leader in developing AV technology, and is the home of several of the top companies, including Tesla, Waymo, Cruise, and others. Many cities across the United States already have autonomous vehicles on their streets. 

In San Francisco, the company Cruise has been testing autonomous vehicles with a driver who could intervene if needed for safety purposes as early as 2017. Since then, Cruise has continuously tested their technology, and in late 2020, began fully driverless testing, which is an SAE level 4 autonomous vehicle. In Metro Phoenix, Google’s Waymo offers a fully autonomous ride-hailing service, where customers can use an app on their smartphone to call an autonomous vehicle in a similar fashion to calling a taxi. 

The AV developments in these two cities reflect how the United States is continuing to build on existing technologies and expand the reach of AVs, a trend which is not showing any signs of slowing. 

Opportunities for U.S.-Turkish Cooperation on Autonomous Vehicles 

Given Turkey’s desire and willingness to expand their AV sector and the U.S’s expanding AV technologies, it presents a unique potential for collaboration between business interests. Technology-sharing between Turkish and American AV developers provides the opportunity to share insights and expand markets in a way that is mutually beneficial. 

In some cases, this exchange is already happening. 

Adastec, a U.S.-based company, designed some of the technology used in Karsan’s autonomous bus launched earlier this year. Ford Otosan, a joint venture between Ford Motor Company and Turkish-based Koç Holding, has been doing research and development on automotive technology in Turkey for decades, including more recently on AVs. These types of business partnerships have the potential to expand the market and provide additional testing grounds, as well as promote collaboration on the challenges that AV development presents. 

Overall, the potential of the AV sector to engage on this emerging and exciting technology is one which must be harnessed. Strengthening ties between the AV industries in Turkey and the U.S. can open the door for other business sectors to collaborate, and ultimately benefit relations between the two countries as a whole.