Autonomous vehicles? Not quite – but they’re closer than you think

One of the reasons I believe that fully autnomous cars are inevitable is that they’re not a technology that has to be delivered all in one go to be useful. Any piece of technology that automates some aspect of driving to make it easier and safer gets us another step towards a self-driving car. So, even if fully autonomous vehicles are some way off widespread deployment, there are some pretty impressive incremental steps towards them appearing on vehicles right now.

For instance, Volkswagen is just about to release a tiny, cheap city car, the Up! (yes, the official name includes the exclamation mark), on to the Australian market. And, stock standard, this $14,000 vehicle includes a feature, in Volkswagen marketing-speak, City Emergency Braking.

This system uses a laser-based sensor (LIDAR in a nutshell, to detect approaching obstacles while driving at low speeds (under 30 km/h) and stop the vehicle to avoid them:

This isn’t the first Autonomous Emergency Brake system – a number of European luxury vehicles are already fitted with them, as well as adaptive cruise control systems that keep your vehicle at a constant distance from the vehicle in front of you in traffic. Nor is it the most sophisticated. As this video explains, more complex models with longer-range sensors can do the same trick at freeway speeds. But it is notable how quickly this technology has migrated from Mercedes-Benzes and Lexuses to the most humble model in the Volkswagen range.

Within a few years, virtually every single vehicle sold is likely to have these systems, to join the lane-keeping and auto-parking systems that are also becoming more and more common. If the claims that it will reduce car accidents by 27% are accurate, it won’t be long before they’re compulsory.

And Bosch and the other automotive electronics houses are undoubtedly busily working on taking some other aspect of driving out of human hands right now.

And, a few generation down the track, sober regulators will wonder why we need human drivers overseeing the computers when they oversight is less reliable than the computers.

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8 Responses to Autonomous vehicles? Not quite – but they’re closer than you think

  1. chumpai says:

    I was surprised to see such a cheap car with the feature of autonomous braking. At the moment though autonomous feature installation does still feel a bit piecemeal. As far as I can tell, features like autonomous braking and automatic reverse parallel parking aren’t being stacked together yet. That said, I imagine we will see a few cars with multiple features as car makers start copying each other.

  2. Liam says:

    I think it’s a lot more difficult than just developing and rolling out the technology. We’re seeing in the same cities that would be the market for the autonomous cars—developed, Western ones—an increasing move towards inner-urban living and pedestrianisation. Cars already interact very badly with pedestrians and cyclists with human drivers: it’s not a matter of technology, it’s a matter of design preferences for streets as well.
    I can see, though, that autonomisation is going to come in in a big way in private spaces; thinking of forklifts in warehouses, tarmac side at airports, in freight, and in mining and industrial sites (where there are already remotely driven trucks), and so on.

    • My view is that autonomous cars will interact a lot better with cyclists and pedestrians than human drivers ever have.

      Nor do I think that the car is going away any time soon; even in places like Paris, private transport makes up one-third of all journeys.

    • Liam

      I am not a cyclist, but I have confidence that cyclists would prefer to ride on roads occupied by cars who are not constantly trying to kill them!

      • Moz in Oz says:

        Or even where the motorist has to deliberately hit a button that says “try to kill that cyclist”, knowing that that fact will be used as evidence against them in court. The current system where the motorist can just lie unconvincingly and a person just like them says “that’s ok, you probably feel really bad” is not very good.

  3. Liam says:

    The one insuperable legal/security limit to autonomous cars occurred to me this evening: what happens when your local terrorist group buys one, fills it with ANFO, and sends it to the nearest airport/shopping centre/Embassy?

    • Robert Merkel says:

      Liam, I can fill a car with ANFO and send it to those locations right now.

      The only advantage of an autonomous vehicle in those situations is that you can get the accuracy and timeliness of a suicide bomber without actually having to have a fellow traveller die.

      It seems to me that potential suicide bombers with a driver’s licence, while not exactly common in the developed world, are nevertheless far more common than people with the knowledge and motivation to construct an effective car bomb.

  4. wilful says:

    There was an article in last week’s Australian Weekend magazine where the writer introduced a Volvo that was able to convoy up on the road, slipstreaming/drafting and using ~20% less fuel. The lead car was in control, and IIRC it was supposed to be a professional driver who was paid by each beneficiary. That’s a really silly idea (having a professional driver) that will never catch on – but convoying will I’m sure. If the lead car emergency brakes (which happens almost never in real life along the Hume Fwy, and even less so with radar and infra-red cameras) the delay in the next car braking would be miniscule.

    The US Air Force is looking at this for transport places: http://www.af.mil/news/story.asp?id=123321609/

    I remember going up the Hume to benalla only a few years ago (well after speed limiters were introduced) and three B-double trucks roared past with about a metre gap between them. Kind of elegant, mostly really scary.

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