Self-driving cars are coming – the public will just have to catch up
Texas is already accelerating into the autonomous driving future
Slowly but surely autonomous vehicles advocates will get their way
Public perception of driverless cars tends to be grounded in scepticism. This is probably due to the fearmongering of some people, who suggest fully autonomous vehicle technology will simply be rolled out overnight and before you know it your Volkswagen Golf will be surrounded by K.I.T.T. from Knight Rider wannabes on your daily commute to work. Autonomy is being introduced gradually – a tried and tested strategy used to successfully integrate new and potentially scary technologies into the mainstream.
I subscribe to a daily engineering news round-up called FirstBell. It is compiled by the American Society for Engineering Education and lists the biggest engineering-related news stories covered each day.
Since subscribing to the online service over a year ago, I would guesstimate that about a third of all media coverage listed relates to driverless car technology.
Most people would rather watch concrete dry than read news stories about science’s shy, unattractive stepbrother, also known as engineering. Unless, of course, that stepbrother decides to go out and buy himself a flashy autonomous vehicle. Suddenly everything changes. It’s as if engineering has taken off its thick spectacles and let its hair down only to reveal a sexy charisma no one realised was there.
Autonomous vehicle research is big news. But the reality is that engineering has bought itself a new leather jacket to try and gain street cred. It’s not ready for a new set of autonomous wheels just yet.
Nor is the public, if half the stories I read on FirstBell are to be believed. Between surveys finding a majority of respondents would never buy a fully autonomous vehicle to rehashed opinions from US academics who believe Americans love driving too much to give that freedom away to some robot they’ve never even met, one might wonder why the world’s largest car manufacturers continue to invest trillions of dollars into autonomous vehicle R&D.
Because driverless cars will become a reality, sooner or later.
However, integration of the technology will be slow at first. There are six levels of driving automation, as defined by the Society of Automotive Engineers. Officially listed from 0 to 5: 0 means no automation – where the vehicle is fully controlled by the driver; and 5 means full automation, where the vehicle performs all tasks under all conditions.
Under US federal law, self-driving cars will need to progress through all six levels of driver assistance technology advancements before merging with regular traffic.
But once again it is a case of legislation trying to catch up with technological advances, a race lawmakers lose more often then they win.
That is with the exception of one state frequently guided by the principle: “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em and profit from it.” Nowhere is it more apparent than in Texas, a state whose legislature is trigger happy when passing laws that curb individual freedoms and social progress generally, but who don’t even show up to vote on proposed laws to impose restrictions of any kind on the rolling-out of new, experimental technologies with commercial potential.
Ford has just announced an agreement with the city of Austin, Texas, to use the state capital to launch a commercial transportation service using automated vehicles in 2021. Ford Autonomous Vehicles chief executive Sherif Marakby said the company “plans to launch the commercial transportation service in a purpose-built hybrid vehicle that can be equipped to carry either people or goods”.
Dallas is already way ahead of Austin. It was the first city to get Uber’s ride-hailing service in 2012. Uber also chose the metropolis as one of the first cities where it will test its urban air taxi service, Uber Elevate.
In short, this is a state that’s more friendly to self-driving technology than most. Contrary to the Society of Automotive Engineers guidelines, Texas law permits self-driving cars on state roads and highways, so long as they comply with traffic laws, have on-board video-recording devices and insurance.
Now Uber Technologies has once again chosen Dallas to map streets and gather data in the downtown area – using two autonomous white Volvo SUVs – to better understand how self-driving cars could safely navigate roads, traffic and handle the Texas driving climate.
While conditions may be favourable in Texas for companies invested in autonomous vehicles, they are still likely to proceed with caution. Without the support of the consumer, there will be no market for engineering’s poster child. Slowly but surely autonomous vehicles advocates will get their way. And just like the medieval era before smartphones were ubiquitous, none of us will even remember what it was like before autonomous vehicles was a thing.