Ready For Driverless Cars?

Category: Auto

The biggest hypefest of the 21st Century is “driverless cars.” Is there presently any car that can take you from Point A to Point B, in all kinds of conditions, without human help? How soon can we expect to see driverless cars at dealerships, and whose brand name will be on them? How will driverless cars reshape American society?

Keep Your Eyes on the Road and Your Hands Upon the Wheel

Let’s answer the easy question first. Yes, there is a fully driverless car. Google has been test-driving prototypes of its latest-generation “pod” car since mid-2015. The pod car’s steering wheel, gas and brake pedals are removable; without them, the car drives itself like a high-wire artist works without a net… very carefully and slowly.

Currently, pod cars are being tested on a few streets in Mountain View, CA, Google’s home town. They are limited to daylight hours and clear roads, and must keep it under 25 mph. The car’s algorithms are extremely cautious, sometimes excessively so. Occasionally, a timid pod car has crept down the middle of a street, straddling the center line that its sensors are supposed to detect and avoid. But that’s why they’re being tested, and improved.

The pod car’s rooftop sensor array contains lasers, radar, and cameras to provide 360-degree and three-dimensional input to the car’s computer. People, pets, other vehicles, trees, poles, etc., are stored as digital objects in an ever-growing database in Google’s cloud. All the different representations of similar objects help the pod car learn to recognize objects from the many perspectives presented by the real world. The more pod car miles driven, the more intelligent the system gets.

Driverless Cars

Tesla stirred up the media with its October, 2015, announcement of “Autopilot” for its Model X and S electric cars. The big reveal turned out to be a software update downloaded to all Tesla vehicles. The update activates and uses laser, LIDAR, and camera sensors in a Tesla to enable smarter cruise control, reactive steering and braking, and auto-navigation.

But the Tesla autopilot system has a lot of bugs to work out. Videos on YouTube show the steering wheel jerking unexpectedly in response to harmless debris on the road, and one handsfree driver was pulled over for doing 75 mph in a 60 zone; the car should not have let that happen. In short, do not take your hands off the wheel of a Tesla when it’s on Autopilot.

The Tesla upgrade also included a feature called “park/summon.” At the press of a button, the car will park itself in a garage, or back itself out when “summoned” by its owner. An automatic garage door opener slaved to the Tesla is a good idea. The parking and summoning happen with painful slowness, as this video documents.

Research and Rumors

Apple is covertly working away on its Titan electric car, which it hopes to unleash in 2019. The famously secretive company hasn’t said if the Titan will be driverless, too. But why wouldn’t it be?

Google predicts that self-driving cars will be available to consumers between 2017 and 2020. Tesla’s Elon Musk says 2020 will be the big year. No one else is making such predictions now, but a lot of firms are getting into the driverless car game.

Uber and Carnegie Mellon University launched a joint initiative in February, 2015; that means Uber provides money and CMU provides knowhow. The plan includes an Uber Advanced Technologies Center in Pittsburgh; it has yet to break ground, let alone develop a prototype driverless car. But CMU was building driverless cars in the mid-1980s, so this partnership could yield fruit very quickly.

Mercedes-Benz has one prototype “research car,” the F 015 Luxury in Motion. An Engadget reporter praised the car’s luxury, but when he asked if the car would stop if he walked in front of it, the answer was “no.” That tells you how far along the F 015 is.

BMW has teamed with Baidu, the “Chinese Google,” to develop a driverless car that has been tested in Beijing on both surface streets and highways.

An Audi A7 prototype drove itself 550 miles to the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show, but it’s not yet ready for city traffic. Audi hopes to bring a fully driverless car to market in 2016.

Delphi Automotive is known for making the parts that go into cars. But it’s also produced a self-driving car called “Roadrunner,” an Audi SQ5 tricked out with Delphi technology. The Roadrunner made a 3,400 mile coast-to-coast run that included tricky situations like traffic circles, construction, bridges, inclement weather and aggressive drivers.

Honda’s self-driving car has received approval for testing on California public roads. One reporter who took a test ride said the Honda merges into traffic “better than some people I know.”

Ripple Effects

All in all, 17 companies already have prototypes of self-driving cars. As the examples above indicate, they’re in various stages of readiness. Society, however, is not very ready at all.

California, Nevada, Texas, and Michigan are the only states that have enacted regulations that permit driverless cars on public roads - for testing purposes only, and under strict conditions. Eleven states have gone in the other direction, passing laws banning driverless cars. Other states are still wrestling with how to regulate driverless cars. The federal government is not considering any legislation or regulations concerning driverless cars. (That probably means they haven't figured out a clever way to tax them yet.)

If driverless cars become the norm, we may not need so many cars. A fully autonomous car could be shared by many people, vastly increasing its utilization rate. Currently, the average car spends 95% of its time parked. On the flip side, I saw one prediction that driverless cars might cause more urban congestion by NOT parking. The reason: In many cities, it would be cheaper to instruct the car to circle the block for 2 hours, than to pay for parking in a garage.

One possible downside is that State and local revenues derived from cars and drivers will decrease significantly. Fewer cars mean few registration fee and sales tax dollars. Who needs a driver’s license when cars drive themselves? Assuming driverless cars become better drivers than humans, traffic ticket revenues will decline. I can think of a few "speed trap" towns where that would put a major dent in revenues.

In the private sector, car insurance should become cheaper, and claims adjuster jobs may be fewer if driverless cars get into fewer accidents. Auto bodywork businesses may decline. If cars become shared resources, aftermarket personalizations may go out of fashion; no more fuzzy dice or flame paint jobs.

Driverless cars are likely to be commonplace within our lifetimes. With that revolution will come dramatic societal changes. But for now, the best driving advice comes from a drug-addled singer who penned Roadhouse Blues, back in 1969.

Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post your comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "Ready For Driverless Cars?"

(See all 28 comments for this article.)

Posted by:

12 Jan 2016

Dan, I'm from Illinois so your statement 'Our politicians need to become better stewards of our money' has no chance of happening. The majority of our politicians only seem motivated to stuffing their pockets with our money.

Posted by:

12 Jan 2016

I forget where I read it, but an article discussed one problem with driverless cars that I hadn't thought of. What if the car detects a person in its path unexpectedly and there is not time to stop? The choices the car can make are A) hit the person, or B) turn into a brick wall and kill you instead. Would you buy a car that was programmed to do (B)? I certainly wouldn't.

Now imagine may different permutations of this: what if there are 10 people in the road ahead? Kill 10 people, or you? What if the 10 people are children? What if YOUR children are in the car? (Assume, for argument's sake, that the car DOES know the difference between adults and children in the road, DOES know who is riding in it, and can and will make the decision about who lives and who dies in a split second.)

A lot to think about, isn't it?

Posted by:

12 Jan 2016

You missed the biggest potential impact of this technology: The impact on jobs.
For a quick example, take autonomous trucks. It's easier to make a point-to-point truck autonomous than a car. Tomorrow's long haul truck drivers will become the train engineers of today; e.g., either obsolete or mere caretakers of the equipment used to replace them.
As CGP Grey notes in 'Humans Need Not Apply' autonomous vehicles don't have to be perfect, just better than humans. And they are that now. The US transportation industry employs about 3 million people; by census numbers, Transportation jobs are the largest category of all jobs in the US. 1/3 of the transportation business cost is for the people.
What would it take to automate a truck moving from a truck depot next to an interstate to another truck depot next to an interstate hundreds of miles away? Not much, and that can be done right now. Plus there is no need to feed, house, or rest the robot - all of which saves money for the transportation company.
Humans will lose their jobs at no fault of their own, just like horses lost their jobs at no fault of their own.

Posted by:

Frank Cizek
12 Jan 2016

Quote: "Let’s answer the easy question first. Yes, there is a fully driverless car."
I agree with Tom W. It's been snowing off & on for three days here, with more to come. A plow just went through & I can only see little bits of road here & there.
Bring that driverless beauty here & let's see how it does!
And how about patches of ice? That should be fun for the whole family!

Posted by:

Darrell H Leacock
12 Jan 2016

It'll never happen. I am 88 years on this Orb and have lived through Several of these "Future Wonders". The most little thought out pipe dream was the one that predicted an auto-airplane in every garage, with detachable wings or folded wings you name it. Some were built and actually flew and drove. The reality was that the sky would be full of the same batch of "NO brainers" that exist to this day.
The negatives then are more pronounced today than were evident at the end of my hitch after WW2. We have a better chance of landing a human on Mars than filling our roadways with "Driverless cars".
It would be Much better that we go back to before the biggest con job perpetrated upon the American people. The destruction of the electric rail (Called "street Cars") transportation that worked so well, and kept multiple air polluting conveyances , including automobiles, from clogging our infrastructure. I could go on.

Posted by:

Richard Dengrove
12 Jan 2016

A driverless car is going to need two things. One is human override so that the car can be rescued from punks and hackers. Two is an infrastructure of driverless car signaling so that the car will stop at stop signs and for cops.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Road sign detection, emergency vehicle detection, and human override are already there.

Posted by:

12 Jan 2016

Nope. I don't even want to be on the same road! If they have totally separate roads, maybe. With the way computers crash, satellite TV goes out when it rains, just way to many deadly possibilities.

Posted by:

Konrad Poth
12 Jan 2016

Will driverless cars become the norm? This is a technological imperative: If it can be done, it will be done!

Posted by:

12 Jan 2016

1) Bob - thanks for the post, had NO idea there were so many different folks trying the concept.

2) I kind of chuckled when I was reading about states permitting (or not) these cars. It read exactly like states accepting Medical mari or not - So the spectrum goes from virtually free use with guidelines (i.e. testing, not in cities etc.), to "Over my dead body". I just caution folks to not become 'Luddite's' when thinking about the inevitable.

3) The 'who do you hit?' question is simply just another form of the "Fat Mans Dilemma" (AKA The Trolly Dilemma [or Problem]. Folks can check it out on Wiki. It IS worth the 5 minutes.

Posted by:

12 Jan 2016

Who will buy these cars? It won't be the young guys with the need to speed.

Posted by:

12 Jan 2016

I believe the introduction would happen in stages.
Certain routes will be opened to driverless vehicles. Over time, the routes will be expanded and more will be developed.
As far as the comment about an instant roadblock killing either 10 innocents, or it's own occupants... the article stated that google cars had 3D sensors of various types. I would (like to) think that some of those sensors would detect those 10 ten people and be cautious before they all jumped out in front.

Posted by:

12 Jan 2016

All mechanical and electronic devices have a finite life and will eventually malfunction or fail completely. Does the car then immediately stop, tying up traffic? Or, does the drive need to be as alert and not distracted as if driving so he can take over control, if reaction times are quick enough? how do the sensors cope with fag or blizzard conditions?

Posted by:

12 Jan 2016

Hopefully not riding along at 70mph on the freeway when a BSOD pops up.

Posted by:

13 Jan 2016

Bob, thanks for the flashback to 1969 with Roadhouse Blues. After dropping out again, I'm gonna need a driverless car!

Posted by:

Paul Memoli
13 Jan 2016

I don't trust anyone (or ANYTHING)but myself when it comes to driving. The day they pry my hands off of my steering wheel will be the same day that the NRA freely gives up all their guns!

Posted by:

13 Jan 2016

Hmmmmmm gives a whole new meaning to the blue screen of death!

Posted by:

Dr. Rohan H Wickramasinghe
13 Jan 2016

Thank you for a very interesting article. I, too, had no idea that so many companies were working on producing a driver-less car.

Please don't think I'm being negative when I say that I don't think a driver-less car would be successful on Sri Lankan roads in my lifetime. For instance, three-wheeler taxis are a law unto themselves and are incorrigible as regards observing lane discipline and so on. (A driver-less motor boat or barge for traveling on a canal may be an interesting option.)

Posted by:

13 Jan 2016

All the critics - including Bob Rankin - are busy inventing reasons the driverless car is not ready or will never be ready. But that's all just nitpicking of a clearly achievable technology. The important question is what's driving the driverless car?

There are 3 really big drivers that make the technology inevitable - and very, very soon.

1. The 32,000 US citizens (millions worldwide) who die each year from the inept human driver errors. (Plus millions of injuries and 500 billion in damage.)

2. The ability - combined with Uber type aps and electric vehicles - to radically improve public transportation efficiency and comfort.

3. The massive financial rewards available to those who provide these new transportation systems.

In other words, all those car companies and big tech companies are going to make it happen as soon as they can because they are already counting the profits.

Posted by:

George Popovski
13 Jan 2016

The on of the many problem with driver-less cars would be sharing the roads with people driven cars. The software of the driver-less cars is designed for the vehicle to strictly follow the laws of the road. Most of the humans,as I see every day, eider do not know the rules or ignore them deliberately.
Probably the best early use of driver-less cars would be long distant transport truck driven in dedicated lanes on the Interstate Highways, with a driver in the vehicle to take controls outside of the highway and deliver the load to the destination

Posted by:

17 Jan 2016

I am in full agreement with Darrell H Leacock - I too saw what was going to be the cars of the future, back in the 1950's. I am 72 and none of it has come true.

I wish some of you could have seen what these cars looked like. Talk about futuristic Sci-Fi, that was what they were. We were also, suppose to be on Mars by now, colonizing. The Moon would have already been colonized, for a jumping spot to the rest of outer space and other planets.

I do believe these things will come to pass, but, not now. First of all, the roadways need major reconstruction and methods of "controlling" the driverless cars. Some kind of magnetic or monorail types of control. It was also, predicted that driverless cars would be all over the world, by 2000. Didn't happen, did it?

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