Why driver­less cars are still far off

Lesotho Times - - Motoring -

LON­DON — There’s been so much hype about driver­less cars any­one would think they were on the verge of tak­ing over the world.

But there are many rea­sons why fully au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cles — to use a more for­mal name — will take much longer to reach mass adop­tion than tech utopi­ans like Google would have us be­lieve.

Here’s a run­down of the main chal­lenges they face.

Eth­i­cal dilem­mas Our driver­less cars will be pro­grammed to avoid col­li­sions, es­pe­cially with peo­ple. But sup­pose a mother push­ing a buggy steps out into the road sud­denly and the car does not have enough time to stop.

Does it swerve into the path of on­com­ing traf­fic, po­ten­tially threat­en­ing the lives of its own pas­sen­gers and the lives of oth­ers? Would it make a dif­fer­ent de­ci­sion if a cat ran out in front? Who will be re­spon­si­ble for pro­gram­ming such de­ci­sions into the car? And what if you don’t agree with the de­fault eth­i­cal al­go­rithm — should you have the right to over­ride the de­fault set­tings?

There are doubts over whether the tech­nol­ogy will ever be­come so­phis­ti­cated enough to han­dle such de­ci­sions any­way.

Of course, the car in­dus­try is well aware of all these eth­i­cal is­sues, which is why Mercedes-benz owner Daim­ler is hold­ing an “Au­ton­o­mous Driv­ing, Law and Ethics” con­fer­ence this au­tumn for the first time, and man­u­fac­tur­ers are con­sult­ing philoso­phers and ethi­cists.

But philoso­phers are not known for con­sen­sus think­ing, which is ex­actly what will be needed to tackle these is­sues at an in­dus­try-wide level.

Who’s to blame? While law-abid­ing driver­less cars, with all their cam­eras, sen­sors, radars and faster-than-hu­man re­ac­tion times, could un­doubt­edly help re­duce ac­ci­dents (90% of which cur­rently caused by driver er­ror), noone is foolish enough to be­lieve that they will be flaw­less.

They will oc­ca­sion­ally crash and per­haps even kill peo­ple. A few of the ones be­ing tested in the US have al­ready been in­volved in crashes. So if you own the car, are you li­able? Or is it the car man­u­fac­turer? Or is it the maker of the spe­cific piece of equip­ment that failed? Or is it the soft­ware com­pany?

“There are some prac­ti­cal and le­gal is­sues that need to be ad­dressed,” says Ben Howarth, pol­icy ad­vi­sor at the As­so­ci­a­tion of Bri­tish In­sur­ers, “par­tic­u­larly about where ul­ti­mate re­spon­si­bil­ity for an au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cle will rest.

“If car driv­ers are re­placed en­tirely by pas­sen­gers who have no way of over­rid­ing or con­trol­ling the sys­tems in the ve­hi­cle, it’s pos­si­ble man­u­fac­tur­ers would be­come li­able in the case of ac­ci­dents.”

“We sim­ply don’t have the an­swers yet,” ad­mits An­dreas Gissler, man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of Ac­cen­ture’s Automotive prac­tice.

Stephan Appt, part­ner at law firm Pin­sent Ma­sons says: “The key is­sue is to find a means to en­able car driv­ers to es­tab­lish that it was not them, or at least not a tech­ni­cal de­fect of their car, when a crash oc­curs.

“There will be a need for event data recorders — like aero­plane black boxes — to be built into the cars. This, how­ever, raises pri­vacy con­cerns. Who shall own the data in the data recorder and who shall have the right to claim ac­cess to it?”

Sort­ing all this out will take years and lots of le­gal wran­gling, not to men­tion new reg­u­la­tions at na­tional and in­ter­na­tional level.

The tech­nol­ogy isn’t good enough yet

Many semi-au­ton­o­mous tech­nolo­gies are al­ready avail­able in to­day’s cars, from emer­gency brak­ing to cruise con­trol, self-park­ing to lane keep­ing.

This year, Ford is also plan­ning to in­tro­duce au­to­matic speed limit recog­ni­tion tech and Daim­ler is hop­ing to test self-driv­ing lor­ries on Ger­man mo­tor­ways.

But this is a far cry from full au­ton­omy.

Andy Why­dell, di­rec­tor at TRW, one of the largest global en­gi­neer­ing com­pa­nies spe­cial­is­ing in driver safety equip­ment, says radars have a range of about 200-300m (218-328 yards) but strug­gle with dis­tances greater than this.

As a re­sult, “sen­sors may not have suf­fi­cient range to re­act fast enough at high speed when some­thing hap­pens ahead,” he says. “Work is go­ing on to de­velop sen­sors that can see ahead 400m.”

Lasers and cam­eras are also less ef­fec­tive in rainy, foggy or snowy con­di­tions, he says, which po­ten­tially makes them un­re­li­able in much of the north­ern hemi­sphere.

Even Google has ad­mit­ted that its pro­to­type driver­less car strug­gles to spot pot­holes or has yet to be tested in snow.

And how would a driver­less car cope try­ing to exit a T-junction at rush hour if hu­man-driven cars don’t let it out?

Stan­dards, stan­dards Driver­less cars may need to com­mu­ni­cate di­rectly with each other us­ing sys­tems sim­i­lar to aero­plane transpon­ders — trans­mit­ting lo­ca­tion, speed and di­rec­tion to other ve­hi­cles.

But will the in­dus­try be able to agree a tech­no­log­i­cal stan­dard for this ve­hi­cle-to-ve­hi­cle com­mu­ni­ca­tion?

“Stan­dard­i­s­a­tion will be the big­gest chal­lenge for driver­less cars,” says Pi­etro Bog­gia, prin­ci­pal of automotive and trans­porta­tion at re­search com­pany Frost & Sul­li­van.

“When you con­sider data an­a­lyt- ics, it has to be shared across the in­dus­try. This im­plies open source soft­ware in cars. But this soft­ware is how OEMS demon­strate their knowhow.”

In other words, col­lab­o­ra­tion in a highly com­pet­i­tive mar­ket will be dif­fi­cult, to say the least.

Se­cu­rity risks Cars will be­come in­creas­ingly con­nected to the in­ter­net and mo­bile net­works, en­abling live stream­ing of traf­fic data, mu­sic, and so­cial media up­dates. Per­haps car-to-car com­mu­ni­ca­tion will be­come stan­dard, too. But con­nec­tiv­ity presents se­cu­rity is­sues.

Re­searchers re­cently demon­strated how they could take re­mote con­trol of a Jeep Cherokee by hack­ing into its in­ter­net-con­nected en­ter­tain­ment and nav­i­ga­tion sys­tem via a mo­bile phone net­work. This prompted man­u­fac­turer FCA (Fiat Chrysler Au­to­mo­biles) to an­nounce a vol­un­tary re­call of 1.4 mil­lion cars so that soft­ware could be beefed up with ex­tra lev­els of se­cu­rity.

In a re­lated de­vel­op­ment, Manch­ester-based NCC Group said weak­nesses in some car in­fo­tain­ment sys­tems could al­low hack­ers to seize con­trol of a ve­hi­cle’s brakes or steer­ing. At­tacks could be mounted via dig­i­tal au­dio broad­cast­ing (DAB) ra­dio sig­nals, the com­pany claimed.

Do we even want them? The global suc­cess of BBC’S Top Gear is just one in­di­ca­tion of just how much we love cars and driv­ing. Rightly or wrongly, many of us love the thrill of speed and the sense of free­dom cars give us. Be­ing in con­trol is an im­por­tant as­pect of that.

But in the driver­less world we be­come pas­sive and dis­en­gaged; the car is re­duced to a com­mod­ity, a mere tool for mo­bil­ity. Where’s the fun in that? Driver sur­veys sug­gest we are at least am­biva­lent about the tech­nol­ogy.

While driver­less cars could of­fer valu­able mo­bil­ity to the el­derly and peo­ple with vary­ing de­grees of dis­abil­ity, most ex­perts be­lieve such ve­hi­cles will be re­stricted to ur­ban set­tings on pre­scribed routes only.

“Full au­ton­o­mous driv­ing, where you pro­gramme your car to drive some­where and read the pa­per in the back, that’s science fic­tion to me to be hon­est,” con­cludes Ac­cen­ture’s Mr Gissler. — BBC

GOOGLE’S pro­to­type driver­less car strug­gles to spot pot­holes or has yet to be tested in snow.

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