Autonomous Cars: More on the Pros, Cons, and Competition
The Automated Vehicle Symposium is held every year by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) and the Transportation Research Board (TRB), and so it measures advances in these technologies in increments. Questions and concerns about security, ethics, and who’s responsible for the first crash caused by an autonomous car are not new for this group.
Michigan vs. California
The MTC essentially is an extension of the university’s test of smart car technology that began on public roads in 2012, with a $ 100 million budget funded by automakers and suppliers, state and federal governments, and the university.
By next year, the MTC expects to test National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) Level 4 autonomy (SAE Level 5) – which means no human control – in Ann Arbor. Michigan’s Department of Transportation must report to the state legislature by February 2016 the next steps to be taken in regulating autonomous and automated vehicles, including the issue of an “operational” license, which would allow such technologies on public roads.
The report could lead to Michigan roads accepting fully autonomous cars, such as the Google prototype, without steering wheels or throttle/brake controls. Google is currently waiting for California’s transportation department to issue such an operational license, expected late this year.
Mind the Gap
The key to safety is to make sure that when we add layers of automation, the transitions between the time the driver takes over from the automated system, or vice versa, is seamless, said Levasseur Tellis, Ford Motor Company’s technical specialist for functional safety.
“The driver’s role changes as the automation levels change,” he said. Ford is working with General Motors and four other companies on an autonomous development program called the Crash Avoidance Metrics Partnership.
“The goal is to have no gaps in who’s doing what,” Tellis explained.
The Ultimate What Machine?
Can American drivers make proper use of semi-automated technologies, analyst Glenn Mercer asked. Consider that 10 million U.S. drivers still don’t wear seatbelts. Conversely, how can BMW continue to use the tagline “The Ultimate Driving Machine”?
“How do you market cars you don’t drive?”
SAE Level 5 (NHTSA Level 4) fully autonomous cars would cut down on the demand for parking spaces in urban areas and at businesses, because a Level 5 car could drop you off from work and then return home to accommodate other family members. But, noted Philipp von Hagen, member of the Porsche Automobile Holding SE executive board, “that could double commuter rush hours, as cars drive home after your commute to work.”
Mercer, the industry analyst, suggested that this phenomenon also will expand suburban sprawl because more people will accept a 90-minute commute to work if they can use cars as mobile offices.
Integrate the Car with the Infrastructure
“High-speed rail is far safer, faster, and more efficient than cars because the trains and the rails were engineered together,” said Adriano Alessandrini, professor at University di Roma La Sapienza, and project coordinator for CityMobil2. “Henry Ford pushed the idea of privately owned cars operating on public roads. This is a mistake. You have the opportunity to correct this mistake.”
“Autonomous vehicles will be able to drive almost anywhere in a few years,” Alessandrini said, poking fun of Google’s goals. “Chris told me, 2020.”
Unlike Urmson, Alessandrini doesn’t see a world in which autonomous and driver-operated cars can safely and efficiently share urban roads. “Cities cannot allow a Wild West of autonomous driving,” he said.
Echoing Mercer’s concerns about suburban sprawl, autonomous cars “will have a good effect on some areas, a bad effect on others,” Alessandrini added.