It seems like a fantasy. Sit back and watch a movie while your self-driving car chauffeurs you around.
Actually, it’s closer to reality. Major companies are betting billions that the future of driving is driverless.
While semi-autonomous cars are available today, every major car company and several giant corporations are racing to test even tastier tech in the labs and on the street. Most are in California’s Silicon Valley, where Google’s self-driving car program has already logged nearly 2 million driverless miles on the streets around Mountain View, Calif.
But research is popping up everywhere.
Nissan has partnered with NASA. A 32-acre driverless test site opened last month at the University of Michigan. And ride-sharing startup Uber partnered with Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pa., then reportedly shocked school officials by poaching 40 of the school’s researchers and scientists for its Uber Advanced Technology Center.
The research is not without bumps. One of Google’s Lexus prototypes got into its first injury accident in July, sending three people to the hospital. It’s the 14th accident involving a Google car, all the fault of the other driver, the company said.
The hype is white hot. Ford CEO Mark Fields even predicted that someone would offer a “fully autonomous” car in the next five years.
Not so fast, said Bryant Walker Smith, an expert in automated vehicles who will speak in October at the Compute Midwest tech conference at Municipal Auditorium.
“These technologies will drive questions about legality, safety regulation, data, privacy and many others,” he said.
They’ll also ramp up fears.
“There are too many things … that I wouldn’t trust a bunch of cameras and computers to handle,” said Bob Jacobs of Kansas City, Kan., who drives a bread truck. “And the first computer car that gets into a fatality accident that a human driver could have prevented? That’s the end, right?”
Maureen Nichols of Olathe worries about computers: “When your computer goes down in your home or office, you’re talking about an inconvenience. If it goes down in your car, it could mean your life. I’m not letting some machine kill me.”
Steven Shladover, a research engineer at the University of California at Berkeley, has good news for self-driving skeptics.
“Don’t expect to see (fully autonomous cars) in your lifetime,” he said. There’s still too much to do.
“The hardest challenge is detecting threats — pedestrians, bicyclists … or a child running out in the street,” he said. “The software has to be close to perfect, and perfect software doesn’t exist.… And I’m not aware of any other situation where software has to make life-or-death decisions.”
Engineers are consulting philosophers to help them design software that can handle ethical choices, such as whether to swerve to miss a collision if it would mean hitting a child on a bike.
We’re not there yet. But today’s semi-autonomous cars are making progress. Using computers, cameras and radar, they can keep themselves in a lane, use cruise control to speed up and slow down with traffic, park and brake to avoid a crash.
Several car makers offer models with the futuristic cruise control for less than $30,000. Mark Redmond, new car sales manager at Infiniti of Kansas City, said an Infiniti Q50 with several autonomous features costs $52,000. Many customers say the back-up system alone, which applies the brakes if it detects an object, is worth the $11,000 in luxury and tech upgrades, Redmond said.
“Imagine if a kid was on a bike behind you, then your car automatically detected him and stopped,” he said.
The future is even better, proponents say. In as little as 10 years more advanced cars will not only do most of the driving for us, they’ll do it far better.
A study by consulting firm McKinsey & Co. said the embrace of self-driving vehicles could eliminate 90 percent of auto accidents in the U.S., prevent as much as $190 billion in damages and health costs annually and save thousands of lives.
As former General Motors chairman Bob Lutz put it: “The autonomous car doesn’t drink, doesn’t do drugs, doesn’t text while driving, doesn’t get road rage. Autonomous cars don’t race other autonomous cars, and they don’t go to sleep.”
But a car can’t really drive by itself in real-world traffic. Yes it can.
Google’s self-driving cars have clocked 1.7 million miles over six years. And in March, a self-driving Audi SQ5 from component maker Delphi made a nine-day trek from San Francisco to New York, with a human required to take the wheel for less than 1 percent of the 3,400 mile journey.
By law a human driver is required to sit behind the wheel, even if the car can drive itself. That doesn’t guarantee safety.
“This is what I call the mushy middle of automation,” Smith said. “Drivers may zone out and fail to do what they need to do. We have to decide what level of human interaction we can legally require.”
Critics also worry that hackers could seize control.
“People ask me if I’m concerned about automated vehicles,” Smith said. “Yes. But I’m terrified of today’s vehicles. Thirty-three thousand people in the U.S. are killed every year in car accidents, and (more than) a million are injured.”
Still, Americans are reluctant: 1 in 3 say they will never get a self-driving car, according to a recent Harris Poll. The disdain is higher among older people, with 36 percent of both Generation X and baby boomers and 50 percent of seniors rejecting driverless cars.
Bobby Hambrick, CEO of Autonomous Stuff, an Illinois supplier of components that enable automation, sought to reassure.
“This technology is going to be a tremendous amount more reliable than any human driver ever could be.”
Self-driving systems use LiDAR (light detection and ranging) that scans the road millions of times per second. Like a bat using sound waves, LiDAR bounces infrared light off objects to generate a real-time 3-D map of the road. Ford says its system is so sensitive it can distinguish between a paper bag and a small animal nearly a football field away.
In their book “Think Like a Freak,” economist Steven D. Levitt and journalist Stephen J. Dubner see positives and negatives to driverless cars. On the one hand, they write, such systems absolutely will save lives.
On the other hand, they could destroy jobs.
“Nearly 3 percent of the U.S. workforce — about 3.6 million people — feed their families by driving taxis, ambulances, buses, delivery trucks, tractor-trailers and other vehicles,” the authors write. “What are they supposed to do when this new technology obliterates their livelihood?”
Tim Sylvester, founder of Integrated Roadways, a precast pavement designer in Kansas City, has a different vision. Instead of fully automating each car, put the sensors in the road for self-driving cars to share.
Sylvester says he is close to doing a 1-mile demonstration of his Smart Pavement for the Missouri Department of Transportation.
How would cash-starved governments pay for such a road?
“We could use a public-private partnership in order to finance the rebuilding of the interstate, then sell subscriptions to truckers and private vehicles,” he said. “We look at it like a cellular service. Think about if you could put on a movie, kick back and arrive in St. Louis without ever touching the wheel. That’s worth 10 bucks, right?” And it’s cheaper than a fully automated self-driving car, he said.
Sylvester tries to ease drivers’ fears with a story from his youth.
“My cousin’s best friend had just gotten a brand-new car,” he said. “They said, ‘Let’s go to Westport to celebrate.’ So we’re driving up Broadway and we pull up to turn onto Westport Road. As we’re sitting there, this girl T-bones us doing 50 mph. She was drunk, speeding, ran a red light, then she fled the scene. Not a single component of that accident would exist with a driverless car.”
The two-day Compute Midwest technology conference is Oct. 22-23 at Municipal Auditorium. The conference features automated-car expert Bryant Walker Smith, robotics pioneer Cynthia Breazeal and 14 other speakers. Tickets are $439 at computemidwest.com.