A decade of massive investment in self-drive technology has spawned impressive progress, but when (if ever) might the arrival of a truly driverless car likely be here and how might it affect us?
Despite most of the big car manufacturers investing heavily in the race to produce fully self-driving cars, critics argue the robots are too expensive and temperamental to navigate as well as people and there are safety and liability concerns regarding machines operating on their own.
At the beginning of the year, Tesla CEO Elon Musk announced that the electric car company’s full self-driving feature would be completed by the end of 2019. He said by the end of 2020 we’d be able to snooze in the driver’s seat while our car went wherever we wanted it to go.
Musk has since revised this statement during Tesla’s Q3 2019 earnings call with investors, and he is not the only car manufacturer to roll back the timeline for fully autonomous cars to be on our roads. So, when, if ever might we see self-driving cars as a reality?
Some car brands have got to the stage of Level 2, where the automated system takes full control of the vehicle (accelerating, braking and steering) but the driver must monitor the driving and be prepared to intervene immediately at any time if the automated system fails to respond properly. At this level, contact with the wheel remains mandatory, even though it does work without it.
Challenges in technology and investment
Volkswagen began developing assist functions more than 20 years ago and now offers a wide range of driver assistance systems. But like all big auto makers, it continues to invest money and manpower into the fully autonomous dream.
“There are technological challenges, but the high level of investment is challenging too,” says Paddy Comyn of Volkswagen Group Ireland in a recent interview. “Volkswagen is partnering with Ford to share the expenses. Both companies will work closely with Argo AI, one of the leading companies for developing self-driving systems. Hardware and software experts in the three companies will work together to find optimal solutions. Volkswagen is bringing its Autonomous Intelligent Driving GmbH (AID) arm to the table, with over 200 experts. This will give Argo AI access to 700 specialists. It is cooperation like this which will bring this future into reality, faster.”
Volkswagen aim to start using autonomous driving for commercial purposes by the middle of the next decade and for the Argo AI platform to become the worldwide standard.
“These systems are the first steps on the journey to automated - and ultimately - driverless driving,” continues Comyn. “In the future, autonomous vehicles will be active on the roads and in a wide range of domains, including motorways and multi-storey car parks. Vehicles will gradually take over more and more tasks from drivers.”
Can technology replace human drivers?
Volkswagen already has trials underway of self-driving vehicles and the technology exists to operate them. However, there is a difference between these prototype vehicles and the large-scale deployment of production vehicles, which have to function reliably at all times. There are a number of technological, legal, and economic issues to solve first.
These problems, among others, have led to many experts saying fully autonomous vehicles could be decades away or that the technology might never actually be capable of fully replacing human drivers.
“Despite the optimistic claims by many carmakers and tech companies, the arrival of self-driving cars is still a long way off and experts query whether the technology will be able to navigate a complex environment like our city streets and instead, predict that there will be a selective adoption in defined controlled areas under managed conditions, like driverless trucks with a designated lane on the motorway,” says motoring expert Geraldine Herbert during a recent interview.
“The U.S. city grid system makes it much simpler to test driverless cars, whereas for example Irish cities, countryside and back roads may prove more of a challenge. Over the next decade autonomous driving technology is set to transform how we drive but fully driverless cars are still most likely to be two decades away.”
Regulatory and legal issues
The jump from the current level 2 to levels 3, where the car can manage all safety-critical functions under certain conditions, but the driver is expected to take over when alerted
and 4, where the car is fully-autonomous in some driving scenarios, though not all, will present a particular challenge in terms of technology, legislation, insurance, and ethics. These challenges stem from the fact that levels 3 and 4 represent the first time that responsibility for driving will be transferred from the driver to the automated driving functions, at least on a temporary basis.
“The biggest issue is human interface issues and convincing people of their safety and to do that they have to be safe one hundred per cent of the time, which is a tall order for any technology,” warns Herbert.
“The lack of clarity around the legal and insurance framework is likely to impede development in the absence of a clear risk-transfer system. Currently, primary liability rests with the user of the car, regardless of whether their actions cause the accident or not, it’s a significant issue. Another, often-overlooked aspect is that driving isn't just about technology and engineering, it's about human interactions and psychology.”
Self-drive vehicles, society & the environment
So, if and when self-driving vehicles do come about, how might they impact drivers, the economy, equity, and environmental and public health?
Self-driving cars have the potential to revolutionise the transportation industry. Statistics in the U.S., where car companies are leading autonomous technology advances, show that more than 90 per cent of car crashes involve some form of human error. In contrast, self-driving cars can be better than humans at obeying traffic rules and speed limits. They don't drive too fast, they don't text while driving and they don’t get tired, angry or frustrated, so the arrival of driverless cars is likely to have a significant impact on road safety.
The point of self-driving cars is to give users back time and to increase safety, agrees Comyn of Volkswagen Group Ireland. “The most dangerous part of a car is the person behind the wheel, but human error, be it down to distraction, fatigue, or some other factor leads to accidents. The hope is that this sort of accident would become a thing of the past. Drivers could become less stressed, there could be fewer road fatalities and given that by the time this technology is widespread the vehicle will most likely be emission-free, so the environmental impact should be minimal too.”
Driverless cars, affordability & the consumer
Carlos Tavares, the head of PSA Group and brands like Peugeot, Citroen, DS, Opel, and Vauxhall said earlier this year that fully autonomous cars may never make a mass-market breakthrough, because the technology will be too expensive for retail buyers.
Fully autonomous tech will remain the preserve of “those who could anyway afford to employ a driver,” Tavares said at a company press conference in March.
“Affordability is likely to be a significant issue and one that is largely ignored,” agrees motoring expert Herbert. “The focus currently is on how safe these cars are but in order to change the world they must be affordable.”
As well as addressing affordability, Herbert believes there is a need to standardise terms for the currently offered assisted systems and inform consumers fully of their capability and their limits.
“The leap to level 4 autonomy is a significant one as the vehicle is capable of completing an entire trip without driver intervention,” explains Herbert. “The risk is that most consumers are unaware of these levels and the capabilities of each, so when car manufacturers use labels such as self-driving’ or ‘semi-autonomous’ to describe the technology within their car, it creates a false impression among consumers and drivers.”
It may be hard not to be seduced by the world of driverless cars. No more hunting for parking spaces, as your car will swing by to collect you when you are ready to go home. But, with safety aspects and environmental impact still major uncertainties, we may be asking ‘are we there yet?’ for a while to come.
This guidance is for general information purposes only.
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