We hear a lot about autonomous cars these days as car makers around the globe race to get them into production. The belief is that autonomous cars will slash the number of car accidents, leading to much lower rates of death and injury. Another advantage planners foresee is a large increase in car sharing networks. If so, that could cut urban congestion dramatically, save cities from having to invest in public transportation, and let owners generate income by renting their cars to others when they are not being used.
What is autonomous driving?
There is a lot of confusion about just what constitutes an autonomous car. The California DMV is proposing new rules that would prohibit Tesla and other companies from using the terms “auto-pilot” or “self-driving” in connection with any car that is not capable of true Level 5 autonomy. The problem is, most people have no idea there are different levels of autonomy, so let’s begin with some definitions to see if we can dispel any misunderstandings. For clarity, I have turned to Wikipedia to help clarify things. Here’s what it has to say:
- Level 0: Automated system has no vehicle control, but may issue warnings.
- Level 1: Driver must be ready to take control at any time. Automated system may include features such as Adaptive Cruise Control (ACC), Parking Assistance with automated steering, and Lane Keeping Assistance (LKA) Type II in any combination.
- Level 2: The driver is obliged to detect objects and events and respond if the automated system fails to respond properly. The automated system executes accelerating, braking, and steering. The automated system can deactivate immediately upon takeover by the driver.
- Level 3: Within known, limited environments (such as freeways), the driver can safely turn their attention away from driving tasks.
- Level 4: The automated system can control the vehicle in all but a few environments such as severe weather. The driver must enable the automated system only when it is safe to do so. When enabled, driver attention is not required.
- Level 5: Other than setting the destination and starting the system, no human intervention is required. The automatic system can drive to any location where it is legal to drive.
When will autonomous cars become available?
Raj Rajkumar, co-director of the General Motors/Carnegie Mellon Autonomous Driving Collaborative Research Lab, tells the press that true Level 5 cars won’t be on the road for at least a decade or more. Carnegie Mellon has been working on self-driving vehicles since the 1980s.Its expertise in the field is why Uber has moved its autonomous car research program to Pittsburgh. That’s where the talent is.
He says the obstacles to perfecting and mass producing fully automated vehicles that can safely transport a passenger door-to-door with no human intervention are formidable. Cameras, Lidar, and radar will need to get much more efficient and come down dramatically in price before that happens. The software for autonomous systems needs to be able to anticipate nearly every scenario a vehicle can encounter — from inclement weather, to a police officer’s hand signals, to a pedestrian darting into traffic unepectedly.
Rajkuman also says there will need to be infrastructure improvements. That includes better lane markings and traffic signals as well as vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communication systems. For a vehicle to drive itself safely in all conditions and speeds, it has to know where it is at all times and what is going on in the world around it.
No substitute for “common sense.”
“We as humans have common sense and reasoning powers that we apply, and most of the time, if not always, we do the right thing,” said Rajkumar. “Computers, though very powerful, are unfortunately lacking in common sense. Self-driving cars can only do what programmers tell them to do. They can’t anticipate everything that can happen on the road.”
Car makers seem to be rushing toward an autonomous driving future with undue haste. What they say on the subject can often confuse consumers rather than enlighten them. Last week, Federal Highway Research Institute in Germany last week concluded that Tesla’s Autopilot constitutes a “considerable traffic hazard” after a Model S operating in Autopilot mode failed to detect a tour bus that swerved into its lane. No injuries were reported, but the Institute found that people are confused about what the Autopilot system can and cannot do.
The impression many drivers have is that the software will protect them from such unexpected occurrences, allowing them to focus on other things ike checking their e-mail or posting selfies of themselves driving with no hands on the wheel to Facebook. Elon Musk says Tesla goes out of its way to remind people that Autopilot still requires them to pay close attention to the road and be ready to take over control of the car at any moment, but a customer in China says the salesman who sold him his Model S told him the car could drive itself and even made it a point to drive with his hands off the steering wheel during a demonstration.
Misleading statements from car companies
Ford CEO Mark Fields told the press in August that Ford would have self driving cars on the road by 2021. What he didn’t say, however, was that those vehicles could only be operated with strictly defined areas where the roads and environment has been exhaustively mapped in advance and the data programmed into the cars’ computers.
If Ford cars were ever used for ride-hailing or ride-sharing duty, they would be limited to a geofenced area. GM says Chevy Volts will be used to transport employees around the closed confines of the General Motors Technical Center in Warren, Michigan. In neither case will the cars be truly autonomous cars capable of transporting passengers from Point A to Point B without human intervention.
Last month at the Paris auto show, Toyota President Akio Toyoda told reporters that fully autonomous driving, which the company calls chauffeur mode, will require a lengthy validation process that includes billions of miles of testing and calibration. Tesla’s Elon Musk tweeted last week that Teslas have now been driven more than 220 million miles while on Autopilot. That’s a remarkable achievement, but Toyoda-san says at least 10 times as much data will be needed before truly autonomous cars become a reality.
Source: Automotive News Photo credit: MIT