“Is the current electric car surge for real?”
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’!
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!).
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.