It is rather like that moment in Generic Science Fiction Movie 2: The Return. The rag-tag group of surviving humans are cloistered in the corner of some vast building, taking stock of who is left, what supplies they have and what to do next. Then they hear a metallic tinkling and everyone tenses: the robots are coming.
Thus it is with the car world right now. We know that fully automated vehicles are a technical possibility and that prototypes have been proven to work. We know, or at least suspect, that they are appealing, not least to people who don’t drive, who don’t care about cars or, for a variety of reasons, are physically unable to drive.
We also know that there is a safety imperative. Humans can be terrific at detecting danger and making decisions quickly, but machines can be faster still. Once those machines can be taught the nuances of decision making and traffic management they will be always on, always in peak condition, without the fallibility of a distracted, imperfect human brain.
So where do we stand? There are five levels of autonomous driving. Level 0 is what we’ve been used to for the past century or so: a human in total control of the car.
Level 1 has arguably been in place since the 1950s and the development of the first cruise-control systems.
Level 2 is, in the broadest sense, about where we are now. Functions such as radar-guided cruise control and steering that nudges and vibrates the wheel, to keep you in your lane on the motorway, are the kicking-off point, but level 2 also includes more complicated systems, such as Volvo's Pilot Assist and Mercedes-Benz's Drive Pilot, which can take, for short bursts, total control of the car at speeds of up to 130km/h.
At the Shanghai motor show this year Mercedes showed a development of the system, fitted to the new S-Class, that can change lanes for you, and take total control for up to 30 seconds.
The Volkswagen group has introduced a safety system, available on models as affordable as a Golf or even a Skoda Octavia, that can safely bring the car to a halt if it detects that the driver isn’t tweaking the steering, or touching the pedals, and is therefore likely to have fallen asleep or in some other way become incapacitated.
Other remote systems, such as those that can twist your car into a parking space, or call the emergency services if they detect that the car has crashed, are now common. Ditto autonomous emergency-braking systems, which are fast becoming the 2010s answer to anti-lock brakes and electronic stability control. These, along with radar-guided cruise control, are the initial building blocks of robotic driving, but they are still some distance from the next step – Level 3.
In Level 3, the driver can switch off entirely and let the car take control of multiple functions, but will still have to be on board and be ready to take back control in an emergency. Many have said that Level 3 should really be skipped entirely and that it is unfair to ask drivers to take on the responsibility of monitoring complex systems such as these.
Level 4, they argue, is the true next step. Level 4 is almost fully automated – you get in, push a button and the car takes you to where you’re going, within a broadly, but still strictly, defined set of parameters.
We could, in theory, create a Level 4 car today. The tech exists, and it is a matter of just fitting it to a car, surely? Well, not quite. The tech does indeed exist, but the laser-radar scanners (LIDAR) which are needed for a car to be able to find its way through the world are cripplingly expensive – at least €10,000 each wholesale, and a car needs at least three of them.
Beyond that, the processing power needed for the car’s computers to be able to make sense of all the inputs from lasers, radar, cameras and more is huge, and it has to be physically there in the car.
"Most of the intelligence for how the car reacts, how it functions, how it avoids obstacles, that has to be in the car, physically. You're not going want to go up to a cloud to ask 'should I avoid this truck?' " Wendy Belluomini, director of IBM's Dublin Research Laboratory told The Irish Times.
“Other things, like routes and where should I go and so on, that can be part of the connected car. But the safety-critical autonomous drive capability, that has to be built into the car, because if wifi or cellular towers go down, you’re suddenly going to have all these cars that can’t function.”
It's the expense that adds uncertainty as to when truly self-driving robotic cars will arrive. While the likes of Google and Apple have billions to burn when it comes to developing the complex systems needed for autonomous driving, the car makers do not. Every dollar and euro has to be accounted for and has to lead, eventually, to a profit.
Future-gazer and technology expert Don Norman told The Irish Times that "for autonomous cars, it's going to be a long time".
‘Faster than is safe’
“The car makers are pushing it faster than is safe. They’re all capable of doing the same thing and the difference is the corporate structure that decides whether it’s safe to release it or not. Mercedes is the leader in what it has allowed its cars to do, such as some automated highway driving.
“But look at Tesla, which announced that it could do so much, that the car could automatically pass other cars and so on. Well, I’ve been working with companies, and they’re all working on the same technology, their cars can all do the same things, but they’re not ready to release it yet.
“Tesla released it and said it was great, and now they’re apologising and drawing it back, and we all predicted that – the cars are just not ready yet. Teslas are remarkably good cars, but on top of that the easiest driving is highway driving, but city driving is much harder, and no-one is ready for that yet.
“And the Google car is not a good comparison, because they use extremely accurate mapping and much more expensive equipment than would ever be possible on a commercial car, and even Google says that they’re going to kill somebody some day, and that’s just because it’s just inevitable. So I’m still talking decades before autonomous cars are a major issue.”
It could well be decades before customers are ready for both the philosophical switch and the expense, especially in Ireland. The comparison with anti-lock brakes and electronic stability control is apt, as when those life-saving devices were still on the options list, Irish buyers voted with their wallets and bought shinier alloy wheels and sunroofs instead.
Paolo Alves, managing director of BMW Ireland, told The Irish Times that "there is no reason for us to be lagging behind in terms of technological developments in passenger cars, and I think it's interesting that Ireland embraces technology – you just have to look at the number of high-tech companies investing here and putting up headquarters here – but still has a very conservative side.
"The problem is that a lot of people don't know the tech is coming yet. We in the industry talk about it all the time, but for many customers, they are still amazed by things such as active cruise control. Perhaps we will be slightly behind continental Europe in adopting autonomous technology, but we already have farmers using totally autonomous agricultural equipment, and the first big step will probably be the automation of freight services."
As for the suggestion that it might be odd for a car maker that has built its reputation on driver enjoyment to be talking so positively about self-driving cars, Alves insists that the two can go hand-in-hand. “It’s not a must that the two should be mutually exclusive. We all love driving, but none of us loves traffic.
“We are seen as an innovative brand and we must be at the leading edge. I think a BMW will always have the possibility for the driver to take over, but look at our Rolls-Royce concept – which was built to celebrate 100 years of the group – that had no driver controls at all, so we will build, under some brands, entirely driver-free cars.”
When asked if Irish buyers would be willing to pay a, doubtless hefty, premium for the first wave of self-driving tech, Ciaran McMahon, managing director and chairman of Ford Ireland said, “I think we have some way to go before we get to the situation of customers paying for an autonomous car. In the initial instance, Ford sees autonomous driving technology coming into play in mainly ride-sharing or package delivery contexts. And then it is anticipated that the next wave of development will see the wider availability of AVs for purchase by consumers. By all means, we would see the mass of buyers take a wait and see approach, so the onus will be on us, the manufacturers, to convince them.”
One of the biggest issues for vehicle automation is not the ability to carve through traffic, nor negotiate tricky junctions, but to be able to weave through the red tape of official regulations.
Wendy Belluomini said that she expects it will be at least 2021, or even 2025, before a self-driving system is sufficiently reliable to convince European regulators to approve it for sale. A bigger problem could be a lack of knowledge and engagement at an official level. When asked, none of the car companies we spoke to for this feature had had any contact with the Irish Government, at any level, on the subject of automation and regulation.
The robots are ready. The robots are coming. It’s we humans, huddling in the corner, who may not be quite ready yet.
WHO’S MAKING THE ROBOT CARS?
The latest 5 Series has increasing levels of autonomy, as does the 7 Series, but full autonomy will probably come to Rolls-Royce first. BMW was among the first to develop self driving cars which could lap test tracks better than a human driver.
One of the leaders in current levels of vehicle autonomy. The Mercedes-Benz E-Class can already drive itself for short bursts on the motorway, and the S-Class has just been updated with a sophisticated Drive Pilot which can even change lanes for you. The company was forced into an embarrassing climb down when its adverts professed more robotic driving tech than existed.
Fiat, Alfa Romeo and Jeep have been behind the curve in bringing self-driving tech to the roads, but behind the scenes FCA might actually have a lead on some of its rivals. Google's Waymo self-driving subsidiary has announced an exclusive tie-up with Chrysler to develop robotic versions of the new Pacifica MPV.
Ford has built an entire fake town in the US to help develop self-driving tech, and is pushing ahead in developing its own LIDAR sensors. The company is keen to skip driver-monitored Level 3 autonomy and go straight to hands-off, eyes-off Level 4.
Honda has been focusing more on development of hydrogen fuel cells than on self-driving tech, but given its expertise in robotics (its anthropomorphic ASIMO robot in particular), expect Honda to catch up pretty soon.
Jaguar Land Rover:
Jaguar was one of the pioneers of self-driving, being part of the original European Project Prometheus, which developed some of the earliest robotic car systems in the late eighties. Since then, it has dropped back a little, concentrating on developing new models rather than robotic systems. It does have the clever All Terrain Progress Control system though, which can get cars moving from standstill on slippery surfaces.
PSA Peugeot Citroen:
Both Peugeot and Citroen have committed to using ‘non-expert’ drivers to test their autonomous tech, and Peugeot has shown off its Instinct autonomous concept car at Geneva this year, complete with reclining, airline-style seats.
While Renault has been more focused on creating electric cars, Nissan has been making great strides with automation, at least in prototype form. Nissan uses self-driving Leaf electric cars as in-factory shuttles in Japan, and the company has announced a collaboration with NASA to develop automated vehicle systems.
Tesla holds the dubious honour of being the first car maker to record the death of a customer who was using its self-driving systems, but the California start-up is one of the leaders in robot car tech. Current models are already hard-wired for Level 5 autonomy, and are simply waiting for software and legislation to catch up.
Toyota, as is its tradition, hasn't put much in the way of automated systems on sale yet, preferring to work away in the background perfecting their reliability. Lexus has prototype cars which can deal with motorways and main roads without any driver input, while the Prius and RX450h have long been the favoured development cars of Google as it works on its self-driving tech.
VW Group is arguably one of the most advanced car makers when it comes to autonomy, having been part of the original Stanford university team that won the DARPA robot car challenge. Audi's 'Jack', a self driving A7, can already lap racetracks at ferocious speed, and Audi has set up a robot car subsidiary called Autonomous Intelligent Driving. VW's MEB electric car architecture is fully robot-capable and all its MEB concepts thus far have featured fold-away steering wheels, while the recent SEDRIC concept was a self-driving capsule with a sofa and a 40-inch touchscreen on the inside. The upcoming new Audi A8 is expected to push the autonomous driving envelope, while simpler systems are already available on affordable models from VW, Skoda and Seat.
Volvo’s commitment to having no deaths involving one of its vehicles by 2020 has been a significant driver of its autonomous driving tech. It was one of the first to develop autonomous emergency braking, and the S90, V90 and XC90 models can already drive themselves for brief bursts on the motorway. This year’s new XC60 will have robotic steering which can swerve around any obstacles it encounters in an emergency situation.