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“Is the cur­rent elec­tric car surge for real?”

New Zealand Classic Car - - Contents -

Icouldn’t re­sist that — ‘Cur­rent elec­tric surge’! Get it? Pun def­i­nitely in­tended! What other way is there to de­scribe the en­croach­ing phe­nom­e­non of not just the elec­tric car, but the driver­less ver­sions? There has been much pub­lic­ity of late around the fact that even Gen­eral Mo­tors, that bas­tion of all mo­tor­ing things great, like 1950s Cadil­lacs (par­tic­u­larly the 1959!) and Chevro­lets, is con­tem­plat­ing an all-elec­tric fu­ture. What on earth can an age­ing clas­sic-car en­thu­si­ast do, other than de­spair? It gets worse. In Septem­ber 2017, our lo­cal press ran a photo story an­nounc­ing the lo­cal man­u­fac­ture of self-driv­ing ve­hi­cles here in Christchurch. Pity the great photo of one of our vin­tage trams was spoiled by one of the pro­to­types parked along­side it. Seem­ingly, the new lo­cal com­pany, which is a sub­sidiary of HMI Tech­nolo­gies, is planning to build its driver­less shut­tles for use pri­mar­ily as ‘ last mile tech­nol­ogy’ to carry peo­ple and lug­gage short dis­tances, or pro­vide last-mile con­nec­tion to or from trans­port hubs. Well, count me out as a test dummy! Even a lit­tle bit of in­ter­na­tional re­search would in­di­cate that one of the prin­ci­pal prob­lems with driver­less tech­nol­ogy is the hu­man fac­tor, com­monly known as ‘the nut be­hind the wheel’!

Au­topi­lot

In what was then a well-re­ported fa­tal crash as re­cently as May 7, 2016, an elec­tric, self­driv­ing ve­hi­cle col­lided with a truck and trailer unit on a Florida road­way. One of the photos ac­com­pa­ny­ing the ar­ti­cle showed the ve­hi­cle with most of the top part shaved off! In a long-awaited US Na­tional Trans­port Safety Board (NTSB) in­ves­ti­ga­tion re­port re­leased in Septem­ber of 2017, a ma­jor find­ing was that the ve­hi­cle’s au­topi­lot con­trib­uted to the crash, in that it did not iden­tify the truck and stop the ve­hi­cle. Ap­par­ently the ve­hi­cle’s sys­tem al­lowed the ‘pro­longed dis­en­gage­ment of the driv­ing task’ and let the driver use the au­topi­lot sys­tem on the wrong type of road. Re­port­edly the driver was watch­ing a Harry Pot­ter DVD, but this was un­con­firmed, de­spite the Florida High­way Pa­trol say­ing that a DVD player was found in the ve­hi­cle, and other wit­ness state­ments.

The NTSB also found that the driver was speed­ing, hav­ing set the cruise func­tion at 119kph — in what was a re­stricted speed area. And the in­ves­ti­ga­tion found that the driver had been ‘smok­ing pot’. Now, while I would love to place the blame for the crash en­tirely on the ve­hi­cle’s self-driv­ing func­tion, that would not be fair. For starters, the ve­hi­cle’s man­u­fac­turer has main­tained that the au­topi­lot sys­tem is not de­signed to to­tally elim­i­nate a driver’s re­spon­si­bil­ity to con­trol the ve­hi­cle. Rather, it is more of an ‘as­sist func­tion’. In ad­di­tion, the Florida high­way on which the crash hap­pened has mul­ti­ple roads in­ter­sect­ing with it. The ‘self-drive’ func­tion was orig­i­nally only in­tended to be used on high­ways/mo­tor­ways with lim­ited ac­cess roads like on-ramps and off-ramps.

Hav­ing said that, the fact that the on-board com­puter (ve­hi­cle black box) was re­moved from the car be­fore in­ves­ti­ga­tors were able to ac­cess its con­tents is a tad sus­pi­cious. In­ter­est­ingly, the man­u­fac­turer then claimed in Jan­uary 2017 (just months af­ter the crash, and the dis­ap­pear­ance of the black box) that it had now in­cluded an au­to­matic steer­ing fea­ture, and that this had re­sulted in a 40 per cent drop in crashes. It also said that it would stress to new and ex­ist­ing cus­tomers that the au­topi­lot is not a fully self-driv­ing tech­nol­ogy, and that driv­ers needed to re­main at­ten­tive at all times.

In amongst the re­search I have been car­ry­ing out, I dis­cov­ered that Cadil­lac had de­vel­oped what it calls a ‘Su­per-cruise steer­ing sys­tem’ which in­cludes a tiny cam­era that tracks eye and head move­ment to make sure that the driver is pay­ing at­ten­tion to the road. Now that’d be use­ful for the po­lice to catch those naughty cell phone users (or should that be ‘abusers’?) It could be hooked up to link to satel­lite cov­er­age so that if a driver averts his eyes once too of­ten while driv­ing, the car’s elec­tri­cal sys­tem could be re­motely shut down and the ve­hi­cle glide to a stop at the side of the road to ‘await fur­ther in­struc­tions’ (prefer­ably some­thing with red and blue flash­ing strobe lights!).

Test bed

Hark­ing back to the lo­cal self-driv­ing pro­to­types, the Christchurch Mayor is wel­com­ing their de­vel­op­ment in Christchurch City, which would be­come a test bed for the Oh­mio Com­pany’s new tech­nol­ogy. Af­ter all, Christchurch Air­port is al­ready test­ing a lo­cal driver­less shut­tle out there, which I have yet to see in ac­tion.

“Un­der­ly­ing the de­vel­op­ment of these par­tic­u­lar self-driv­ing ve­hi­cles is the idea that peo­ple might no longer need to rely on their pri­vate ve­hi­cles, which would re­duce con­ges­tion, pol­lu­tion, and crashes”.

Funny, I thought as I read that com­ment, where have I heard that be­fore? Oh yes, now I re­mem­ber — the same phi­los­o­phy is be­hind the City Coun­cil turn­ing all the Christchurch roads into cy­cle­ways (for about half a dozen bikes at best), namely that we will aban­don our cars and use bi­cy­cles!

Sure, de­vel­op­ing driver­less tech­nol­ogy for use in a con­trolled en­vi­ron­ment (no hu­mans al­lowed) is one thing, but un­til all the prob­lems are sorted out, let’s leave these things to be used on pri­vate prop­erty, not pub­lic roads.

An­other re­quire­ment for this tech­nol­ogy is for ve­hi­cles to ‘talk’ to each other. How will that hap­pen? Who’s go­ing to retro-fit a com­puter to my Ze­phyr? I’ve al­ready tried, but the mon­i­tor screen keeps fall­ing off the back seat ev­ery time I stand on the brakes. My Ze­phyr presently com­mu­ni­cates with er­rant ve­hi­cles via some nice ’n’ loud alpine horns, and/or a Klaxon horn. I’ve found that this is a very ef­fec­tive method for get­ting the other driver’s im­me­di­ate at­ten­tion. And, as is al­ready widely known, when a car with a driver en­coun­ters a driver­less car, the driver­less car is pro­grammed to give way, so one can imag­ine that if you hap­pen to be in the driver­less car, you are go­ing to have a much longer jour­ney — un­less you over­ride the tech­nol­ogy, in which case there will likely be a crash!

As I said, there is quite a way to go yet, and one can­not help but won­der if the re­cent an­nounce­ments by Gen­eral Mo­tors et al about even­tu­ally go­ing all-elec­tric (with the pre­sump­tion that driver­less tech­nol­ogy will be fol­low closely be­hind) is sim­ply pos­tur­ing un­til the in­evitable hap­pens, which will be that ‘we can’t do it’ for what­ever rea­son, not the least of which is that most of the world uses petrol/diesel to power its ve­hi­cles, and I doubt if the world econ­omy would sur­vive with­out petrol in the longer term.

So, best dust off that clas­sic car or mo­tor­cy­cle, and get some more kilo­me­tres on the clock while you still can, and def­i­nitely be­fore the ad­di­tional road haz­ard of driver­less ve­hi­cles is added to the mix.

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