Autonomous driving is with us already. If you don’t believe me, look at some of the more recent offerings from Audi, Mercedes and Nissan, not to mention the fresh faced, new kids on the block; Tesla and Google.
Yes, we still have to pass a driving licence and no, we can’t grab forty winks on our way to Butlins. But pulling apart what ‘Autonomous driving’ really means, shows us how close we really are.
The definition is bound to change after every major tech or motor show, but the real foundation of autonomous driving is: ‘a vehicle that is capable of sensing its environment and navigating without human input.’
If I remember rightly, there were Lexuses (Lexii?) that could parallel park with hands-free drivers around five to ten years ago…
But after literally minutes of research, it seems self-driving, self-aware vehicles have been around for much longer than that. Whether it’s the radio controlled ‘phantom-auto’ of the late 30’s or the first truly autonomous car by Carnegie Mellon University in the 80’s, engineers and designers have always tried to reduce the pressure and risk held by the driver. Even today Elon Musk (CEO of Tesla) commented that in 2 years, he believes cross country driving will be fully autonomous.
This never-ending drive to silo the driver from the road is a powerful one, fraught with successes and disasters. Google reported recently that on 14 occasions since 2009, its little silver Noddy car was rear-ended by unaware, attention deficit drivers while testing in America. This is something they class as a success to the concept of autonomous driving.
However these figures seem to highlight one of the pitfalls of the concept, which is simply, does it only work if 100% of cars on the road are autonomous? The London Underground is controlled by a mass of people in a small office, directing the drivers to slow down, stop and speed up according to the wider picture, and it works brilliantly. It’s easy to imagine this being replaced by a string of zeroes and ones filtering through countless algorithms. Unfortunately, to get to a stage of 100% autonomous, everyone would have to swap their pride and joy for a Google Car overnight. I think even Google knows that ain’t gonna happen.
Unless, of course, legislation were to demand this, in the interest of passenger safety. Legislation is, in my opinion, the biggest challenge to the adoption and success of the autonomous car. Firstly, governments would need to decide on how these vehicles interact with other road users, whether the driver should be able to over-ride manually and how fast they can travel. It seems logical that the first baby steps taken will be along the lines of Tesla’s AutoPilot feature, where the driver still has a wheel and pedals, but can transfer control to the on-board advanced cruise control on highways and specific mapped roads. Even then, the questions of ethics and morality, underpinned by legislation are still very much in the fray. What does the car do if the only two options are to kill the driver or maim a fundraising group of nuns on the pavement? Who takes priority? Aside from matching the faces of all pedestrians, logging into their social networks and assessing how nice a guy they are, this question is not an easy one to answer.
A friend and I had this debate, and his point was that if the autonomous car were in control, it would have recognised the situation before needing to make the decision. And what’s a little bit of collateral in a world of 1,700 road deaths a year currently? I had to disagree. Living near a school has taught me that humans (especially young ones) are inherently stupid and will throw a Frisbee across the road with no prior warning. I fear that to mitigate this risk, legislation would force autonomous car speed to be woefully low, and would make journey times even longer than they are currently. That’s not really improving the passenger’s journey…
Eventually, these issues will be ironed out, governments will relax, and all the chauffeurs of the world will need new jobs. Drivable cars will go the way of the horse; playthings for the select few. Bridleways will be ‘drivezones’ and road fatalities will be few. Until then, I’ll stick to looking out my windscreen for Frizbees and my driving instructor aunt will still have a job.