Autonomous Cars - Impending Reality or Science Fiction?

03 March 2015

 Google

There was an email doing the rounds in the 90's that purported to be an exchange between Bill Gates of Microsoft and Jack Welch of General Motors. (Jack Welch was the chairman of General Electric but why let accuracy get in the way of a good story?). The gist of it was that Bill Gates had remarked that if the car industry had evolved at the rate of the computer business, we'd all be driving 50$ cars that got 1000 miles to the gallon. 

GM (as the joke goes) supposedly hit back with "We might well be driving 50$ cars that do 1000 miles to the gallon but they'd crash twice a day for no apparent reason. Executing a manouvre like a left turn would cause your car to shut down and refuse to restart, you'd have no choice but to reinstall the engine." 

The reality is that modern cars are an amalgam of mechanical engineering and computer technology. Even the cheapest hatchback will have an engine management system processing information from a variety of sensors: air temperature and pressure, oxygen, throttle position, engine temperature, coolant temperature etc. Many models will have anti lock-brakes, advanced climate control, air bag systems; all of which are constantly being monitored electronically. 

Features such as "cruise control" are now fitted as standard on many models, "parking assist" and even hands-free "intelligent parking" are now widespread. We're placing ever greater trust in our vehicles, so is the progression towards the driverless, autonomous vehicle (AV) all but inevitable and if so, when can we expect to see them? 

The consensus amongst auto industry commentators is that partially autonomous vehicles will be on our roads within 18 months. Partial AVs will contain features such as highway autopilot and traffic jam autopilot. Daimler's Mercedes-Benz plans to roll out its "Autobahn Pilot" in 2016, a function that will permit hands-free motorway driving with overtaking capability. Tesla Motors is planning a similar feature for its electric Model S whilst General Motors has announced that its "Super Cruise" feature will be available in the 2016 Cadillac - a system that will keep the car in its lane, control speed and trigger braking. However, we're not likely to see fully autonomous vehicles on our roads for at least a decade. 

In-depth analyses carried out by The Boston Consulting Group of the trends driving both the development and potential adoption of AVs concluded that mass adoption of AVs will not occur "until vehicles are secure from cyber attack, uncertainty about liability is resolved, remaining social resistance is overcome, and high-precision maps are developed." Additionly there are ethical questions that need to be addressed. What happens at the point when an accident becomes unavoidable for example? If a child runs into the road, how does the onboard computer decide which way the car should swerve? Towards the oncoming traffic or up onto the pavement? 

There is also the legal and regulatory framework that will require a complete overhaul to accommodate the autonomous vehicle. Will owners need a driving licence? Can the visually impaired operate them? Children? 

Car manufacturers, as well as companies like Google have invested billions in research, in development of prototypes and in testing. Survey data suggests consumers want the product and are prepared to pay a premium for the autonomous option - AVs are undoubtedly the future but the industry still has a lot of hurdles to cross before we see fully autonomous vehicles in showrooms.