Look Ma, no driver


DRIVERLESS CARS:IT HAS been more than half a century since some of the first concept cars boasting self-driving features were presented to the world and they are still not on the roads.

General Motors (GM) showed off “dream cars” in the late 1950s such as the Firebird II and Cadillac Cyclone with features carmakers are now starting to roll out in new models as the technology – based on sensors, lasers, radar systems, GPS, cameras and microchips – improves and becomes less costly.

While most industry officials do not envision a fully self-driving, or autonomous, vehicle before 2025, features such as adaptive cruise control or traffic jam assist that automatically slow or apply the brakes for a car in certain situations are already being introduced.

Much like anti-lock brakes, which became the norm after initial resistance, these new technologies will prepare drivers for a future where they are needed less.

“The whole concept of a car being able to drive itself is pretty profound,” says Larry Burns, GM’s former research and development chief and an adviser for Google’s self-driving car project. “This is the most transformational play to hit the auto industry in 125 years.”

The progress has been in the making for decades. GM’s Firebird II, introduced in 1956, included a system to work with an electrical wire embedded in the road to guide the car.

Three years later, the rocket-like Cyclone boasted an autopilot system that steered the car and a radar in front nose cones that warned of a collision and automatically applied the brakes.

However, the pace of invention has quickened, with such firms as GM, Ford, Toyota and Volkswagen developing technologies to help drivers avoid accidents.

Some even envision a future where today’s cars are more for amusement.

“In the same way we all used to travel on horses and now horses are entertainment, you could imagine automobiles driven by people becoming more entertainment,” says Chris Urmson, the Google programme’s technical head.

In a world where Nevada and Florida have already passed laws allowing the licensing of self-driving cars, the rush is on to make the job easier for drivers. For many, the ultimate goal is to take the steering wheel out of consumers’ hands and eliminate accidents altogether.

“Once we have a car that will never crash, why don’t we let it drive?” says Nady Boules, GM’s director of autonomous technology development.

However, Boules and executives like him will have to win over a public that includes those who love to drive or simply would not trust their lives to a robot. Others, like long-haul truckers, could resist the technology for fear of job losses.

“My mental model of trust in technology is a Windows blue screen of death. That’s how much faith I have in PCs and computer systems,” says Bryan Reimer, a research scientist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s AgeLab.

Reimer, whose group studies human behaviour in relation to transportation safety and has worked with BMW, Ford and Toyota, says people are terrible overseers of autonomous systems and a car that helps drivers rather than replaces them would be a better model.

Even if the industry eventually wins the hearts and minds of most consumers, it also must establish the infrastructure that supports self-driving cars, including not only the technology but the necessary legal and liability frameworks – things that may take years to put in place.

Many people point out that the airline industry has had an autopilot feature for years, but people still man the cockpit. The same will be true for cars.

Costs must come down as well. For instance, the laser-based Light Detection and Ranging system used by Google costs $70,000 (€56,000), according to a study released this month by consulting firm KPMG and the Centre for Automotive Research (Car).

For that reason, the rollout over the next decade of more semi-autonomous features that assist drivers or take control of cars in only some cases is the path the industry is taking, with the idea of preparing consumers for a future with fully driverless cars.

“The socialisation of autonomous driving is actually the difficult part. The invention of the vehicle is the easy part,” says John Hanson, Toyota’s US manager for environmental, safety and quality issues.

The Japanese carmaker has two autonomous car programmes, one in Japan and the other in the US.

Even some carmakers developing semi-autonomous features for their cars do not believe consumers will accept a future without human drivers. “The days of George Jetson getting in the vehicle, saying ‘to the office’ and then reading a newspaper we don’t envision for an awful long time,” says Tom Baloga, BMW’s US vice-president of engineering.

Nevertheless, tech firms and colleges are getting involved. Chip giant Intel created a $100 million fund in February to invest in future motor technology.

“The industry appears to be on the cusp of revolutionary change . . . engendered by the advent of autonomous or ‘self-driving’ vehicles. And the timing may be sooner than you think,” KPMG and Car say in their study.

GM, for instance, believes semi-autonomous cars will be available by mid-decade with more sophisticated self-driving systems by the end of the decade.

Bill Ford, chairman of rival Ford Motor, sees semi-autonomous driving technology by 2025 such as driver-initiated autopilot systems, as well as the ability to reserve parking spots ahead of reaching your destination in a linked network, with fully autonomous cars following after that.

Bob Casey, curator of transportation at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, regards the self-guiding driving system of GM’s Firebird II concept car of more than 50 years ago “almost as a parlour trick”, but he says the technology now brings such cars closer to reality.

The question is whether the motor industry is ready for that. “Part of the fundamental attraction of automobiles has been the actual driving of them,” Casey says. “If you do away with that, then it really becomes an appliance . . . a toaster, a washing machine.” – (Reuters)

Beyond the wheel

Consulting firm KPMG and the Centre for Automotive Research (Car) in Michigan released a report this month about how close the industry is to rolling out self-driving cars. They see the first such vehicles hitting showrooms in 2019, with a more developed infrastructure by 2025. However, KPMG and Car say the implications of a totally driverless car that does not crash would be huge:

* Automated cars would drive in tighter packs because computers would control their speed and spacing. That would mean roads could be smaller, leading to a significant reduction in infrastructure costs.

* With computers controlling the cars, driving would be more efficient and thus faster, leading to less congestion on the roads. Fuel consumption would decline and companies that rely on just-on-time delivery could reduce inventories even further.

* Driverless cars would mean a change in the way drivers are insured, and could even end the need for car insurance.

* Crashless cars would mean car-repair garages would see fewer damaged cars, meaning they would need to shift their business model to serving the aftermarket needs of existing cars that lack autonomous driving systems.

* Vehicle sharing could keep vehicles in more constant use, reducing the need for car parks that take up a lot of land in cities.

* Lighter, easier-to-build cars could open the motor industry to new rivals using a model like Apple’s, where a company designs and markets a product but outsources its construction.

* A connected, driverless car network would require security from hackers and raise privacy concerns among consumers.

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