Will self drive cars take over the road?
This may not be a subject you’d expect to find on my blog, but it’s something I’m very interested in personally so I thought I’d put this article together. And what I’m talking about, of course, is self drive cars. Self drive cars are the talk of the town at the moment, with trials and testing going on in various cities all over the world. But will self drive cars, or autonomous cars as they might otherwise be known, take over the road as much as some people think they might? Well that remains to be seen, but in the February 2016 edition of 4×4 Australia magazine, Fraser Stronach says he doesn’t think so. In his article he makes some valid points about why he feels that self drive cars are a little further away than some people might expect.
I’m not so sure I agree. Lets take a look at the points he makes in the article.
There are alternatives to self drive cars
In Fraser’s article, he says that people won’t adopt self drive cars because there are alternatives such as taxis, busses, trains, trams etc. He also points out that the rise in app-based ride sharing (such as Uber) means that people will have plenty of alternatives.
But with all of these existing forms of transport, you have to wait for them. A self drive car will be where you told it to be, exactly when you told it to be there. It will learn your schedule and adapt its routine to suit you.
And with these other services, you’re putting your own safety into the hands of a person whose driving history you have no idea about. People may argue that surely a person is much safer than a self drive car! If that were the case then why are we putting so much computing technology into our cars already? In fact, look at the safety features of the all new Pajero Sport and tell me how many of these features are NOT driven by a computer. You have Blind Spot Warning, Forward Collision Mitigation, automatic wipers and lights, ultrasonic misacceleration mitigation, multi around monitor, ABS, ESC… the list goes on. ALL controlled by computers and designed to make the car safer than it is when it’s driven by a human. But what’s more, and the proof is in the pudding, Googles self drive vehicle is in fact ridiculously safe!
I actually think that self drive cars will put an end to taxis, ride sharing and even public transport.
Self drive cars won’t be cheap
Fraser believes that these self drive cars won’t be cheap because there is an awful lot of technology required to drive a self drive car. And it’s true. There is a huge amount of technology, research, testing that makes up a self drive car. He points out that these cars will require radars, cameras and proximity sensors that will all be held together with intelligent computing systems and that this will cost money.
Well I think he’s party right. Self drive cars do require a huge amount of modern technology. But if you take a look at the list of safety features that I listed above, you have to admit it’s a pretty impressive list. And they’re all held together by a computer! Every modern car has one already! And Mitsubishi’s Pajero Sport is one of the more affordable 4wd vehicles on the market!
Yes but what about the computer programming that goes into controlling a self drive car? Well… how many of you own a mobile phone? Or an iPad? Or a laptop? These all run software that has taken many hours of coding and does it make them unaffordable? Will a self drive car really be any different? Is it that much of a stretch to add in some additional coding and robotics? I don’t think so.
But a more interesting question is… will you buy a self drive car anyway? And in my opinion the answer is no, you won’t. But you will subscribe to a self drive car service.
I think that companies, such as Uber, will offer multiple levels of subscription to their self drive car service ranging from exclusive use, where the car is effectively your own, through to scheduled service where a car will be waiting at a certain point at a predetermined time ready to take you home from work, through to an ad-hoc service where you ‘summon’ a car when you need one. And many levels in between.
Conventional vehicles come in a myriad of flavours
People like what they like. I like 4wd vehicles while my neighbour might like sports cars. Fraser believes that self drive cars won’t be offered in an appealing range of flavours. And maybe he’s right. Or maybe not. But I do know that there are already a number of companies starting to investigate the production of self drive cars. Companies such as Google, Volvo and Tesla are part of the gang. And are these not extremely diverse and different companies? Why wouldn’t they produce a diverse range of self drive cars?
Who is to blame when a self drive car is involved in an accident?
Well this is a fantastic point. Who will actually be responsible probably depends on what actually happens in each individual accident but it probably won’t be the owner of the vehicle. In the same way that a passenger on a bus isn’t responsible if the bus is involved in an accident. The responsibility for proving the safety of the vehicle will lie solidly on the vehicle manufacturer/software developer.
So why, then, would any company want to produce millions of self drive cars if they’re opening themselves up to such liability? They would do so only if they thought that it was going to be profitable. Which means that they believe that the amount they’ll pay in compensation will be limited. Which means that they believe that their self drive cars are safe. And they will be!
Self drive cars will monitor themselves and at the first sign of a problem, will shut themselves down and summon a replacement vehicle. Then a self drive town truck will come and take the broken car away for repair. But what’s more is the broken car will report back to HQ with diagnostic information. This information will be used to make improvements that will then be sent over the internet to all other self drive cars which will only help to make the entire system even safer.
How will they handle varying conditions?
Fraser points out that driving conditions change. And they sure do! Rain, snow, heat, road surfaces. Fraser points out that even something as benign as a plastic bag blowing across the road can trigger a self drive car to brake suddenly, causing the vehicle behind to rear-end it.
This is surely the biggest challenge for the software developers. But as technology improves I’m sure they’ll work out ways of making self drive cars smarter.
But in regards to the car behind… What if that car was fitted with collision avoidance technology? Which, by the way, is a technology that you can find in many current vehicles. But take this a step further… What if the car behind was fitted with self drive car awareness technology. A way of ‘talking’ to fully autonomous cars, so to speak. I think that if this were the case, the scenario would change dramatically. The self drive car could be in constant communication with the car behind, telling it to stay a certain distance away. Variable cruise control and driver warning systems would help maintain the distance. The self drive car sees plastic bag and hits the brakes. But at the same time communicates to the vehicle behind that it is applying the brakes. The car behind then reacts before the driver can and applies the brakes safely. And so on down the road…
“Sure” you say “But my car doesn’t have self drive car awareness and there is no way it’ll ever get fitted”. Really? Well there was a time not so long ago when the government forced people to change from leaded fuel to unleaded. And you won’t find a car now days that doesn’t have an immobiliser. And all Australian cars must now be fitted with some kind of active stability control. So all it takes to implement this kind of technology is a directive from the government. Not to say that you MUST drive a self drive car, but that your car must be self drive car aware. Done.
Self drive cars will have to have a 100% reliable computer
Really? Cars currently have computers in them. Very sophisticated computers with very sophisticated safety features. Are these computers fault free? As long as a self drive car is carefully designed to stop on fail then I don’t see that there is a problem. There are lots of examples where machinery and technology is designed to fail safely.
What’s more, when the self drive car fails, it will broadcast this status to all other self drive cars and self drive aware cars in the vicinity so that they know to avoid it. Perhaps other self drive cars will be programmed to push it off the road to get it out of the way. It will then send diagnostics back to HQ and call itself a self drive tow truck. A replacement self drive car will arrive in a matter of moments to keep you on your journey.
Self drive cars will ‘talk’ to each other.
Fraser is sceptical that this will be possible. He believes that for this to happen, all self drive cars will need to have the same operating system and current updates.
But lets look at current technology. I’m writing this on a computer running Microsoft Windows. I have an iPhone which is running Apple iOS. These are two very different operating systems developed by two rival companies. But using a standardised technology called Bluetooth, I can get my two devices to communicate. There is absolutely no reason why self drive cars from different manufacturers wouldn’t be able to communicate with each other. They would just need to communicate in a standardised language, so to speak. And this standardisation will be regulated by an international standards body. This is not a new concept.
Google is currently leading the way in self drive car development
Well… they’re certainly involved anyway. Are they leading the way? Maybe. Don’t know…
But regardless, making the car is really the easy part. All you need to do is put together 4 wheels and an engine and you have a car. The hard part is the computer technology that will make self drive cars efficient, safe, reliable and fun. And why shouldn’t a technology company like Google lead the way in that space? Once they have proven their technology, I’m sure that they will have a queue of vehicle manufacturers knocking at their door wanting to fit it into their cars.
But also, as mentioned above, there are a number of vehicle manufacturers who are also joining the race.
So when will be see self drive cars for real?
Fraser’s timeframe is decades. He doesn’t feel that they’ll be common on our roads anytime soon. And really, only time will tell.
But trials of self drive vehicles have started around the world already. In fact a self drive bus is set to be trialled in my home town of Perth this year. THIS YEAR!!! And I can’t wait!
So will they be decades away? I think Fraser and I will have to agree to disagree on this one. I think that they will be common on our roads much, much sooner than that. Much of the technology that is being implemented in self drive cars is current. It’s not actually developing anything that is new, it’s just extending its use. We already have trains in many cities around the world that drive themselves, large passenger planes already do a lot of the work automatically, heavy mining machinery is becoming more and more autonomous. So I don’t think self drive cars are really such a big step.
But what else is interesting about self drive cars
Self drive cars will probably, for the most part, be electric. Electric cars are more reliable and require much less maintenance than traditional combustion engine cars, and the expected life of an electric motor is orders of magnitude longer than a combustion engine. So in order to make them more affordable, I think that manufacturers will make them electric. This will make them much more energy efficient as well, particularly with the drive towards green energy. But even without green energy, a combustion engine powering a vehicle is significantly less energy efficient than an combustion engine generating electricity. Every time you put your foot down to accelerate and your engine revs and you blow black diesel smoke out of your exhaust pipe, that’s engine inefficiency. Listen to your generator next time you’re running it (if you have one). Do you hear it revving? Does it blow black smoke? Or does it just putt away steadily making electricity? That’s the difference in efficiency right there. So removing all combustion engines and replacing them with electric engines will produce a much greener planet.
But what about batteries? We all know that batteries run out of life eventually and need replacing. But there is an emerging technology in this space that will change how we feel about battery technology. Super capacitors will have a significantly longer life span and will also have the capability of holding significantly more power than today’s chemical batteries, increasing the range of an electric vehicle from a few hundred kilometres to literally thousands.
“But I love the power of my twin turbo v8. An electric car will never give me the same get up and go, right?”
If that’s how you feel… watch this… I have no words… just watch…
Self drive cars will also bring an unprecedented freedom to some members of the community. Visually impaired people, the elderly, people with disabilities and even children will be able to benefit from this technology. You’ll be able to put your kids in the car and send them to grand-ma’s house for the afternoon, people who are unable to drive will be able to get themselves to appointments, drunk people will be able to get home without endangering themselves and others.
I’m very much looking forward to self drive cars. In my mind, the benefits significantly outweigh the negatives in this emerging technology. I’m hoping that we see them on our roads very, very soon.