Will they go the way of electric cars?
In the early 1960s, when some of us ‘older folk’ were getting used to television, albeit in a very limited format compared with that of today, there was a Hanna-barbera cartoon series called The Jetsons. The Jetsons followed a comic futuristic family comprising George, wife Jane, daughter Judy, son Elroy, and their dog Astro. Their transport was essentially a flying car. Given that it was only some 50-something years since the Wright Brothers (or Richard Pearce) had taken to the skies for the first time, it was not unrealistic for a schoolboy to believe that the Jetson family’s flying car was actually not that far-fetched, as a concept. Around that time, battery-operated cars were coming out of Japan, Germany, France, and even Great Britain, but they were all toys of around 30cm to 40cm in length. No one in my circle of friends ever considered that full-sized cars would be battery-powered, let alone be ‘driverless’. One has to remember that computers were in their infancy in the mid to late 1960s, and this scribe worked for the then–bank of New Zealand computer centre, where the bank’s IBM 360/30 computer took up an entire floor!
Protecting their patch
Then, in 1996, electric cars began to appear on roads all over California. To quote the documentary, “They were quiet and fast, produced no exhaust and ran without gasoline (petrol). Ten years later they were destroyed.” General Motors’ fleet of EV-1 electric vehicles was so efficient that it was on the brink of altering the future of driving in America, perhaps even the world. So why were they all destroyed? The conspiracy theorist in me would suggest that it was the oil industry protecting its patch.
Now car manufacturers are not only making electric vehicles once again, but also there is the growing development of the driverless concept. I have previously said that there is already evidence that driverless cars are present on our roads as we speak, and can be seen at any intersection. You’ve seen them! The ones where the driver is otherwise occupied with cosmetic touch-ups in the rear-view mirror or smoking, while clutching their trusty mobile phone in the other hand and steering with their knees, etc. But leaving the idiots aside for the moment, it would seem that driverless cars are on their way. They will be known as ‘AVS’ — automated vehicles — and will accelerate autonomous driving technology.
Already there has been one fatality involving a Tesla Model S. Seemingly, the driver, er, passenger, may have been distracted and failed to notice that the car’s system hadn’t identified a significant hazard — the truck it hit! Apparently, several of the car’s sensors were trying to interpret conflicting information. Experts have been identifying the types of hazards that driverless cars (AVS) will have to contend with.
Roadworks were what stuffed up a 5470km AV commute across the US in April 2005, when engineers had to take control of the car for some 80km when it encountered roadworks and unmarked lanes. One of Google’s self-driving cars collided with a bus in Mountain View as it tried to navigate its way around some sandbags on the street. And then there is the rain. Rain can create visibility problems in that the accuracy of the laser-based Lidar sensors and can create confusing reflections and glare.
I guess the greatest problem that I can see is that of hackers. Remember the odometer-tampering debacle with Japanese imports in the not too distant past? And how technology was developed to prevent tampering? Most notable of the developments was that of BMW, which had (in some cases) no fewer than eight separate computer storage devices in the car. The theory was that if someone tampered with the odometer, then the other computers would reveal the correct mileage. Then some smart alec developed a program that, when connected to the car’s on-board computer, simply asked the car where all the computers were and changed the mileage on each one. The car was then presented for inspection and the ‘you can trust this odometer’ sticker duly affixed!
In the event that it is stolen, BMW can also disable your car via satellite wherever it happens to be in the world when it is taken. There’s the low-life screaming down the highway in your pride and joy when, all of a sudden, the car grinds to a halt, having been disabled. Now that would certainly draw attention to the situation, wouldn’t it?
So my prediction is that, even now, there will be some techno-freak working away at a program which will allow him/her to access your driverless car and take control of it. The worry is that some nasty type will then deliberately drive the car into an obstacle; another vehicle; or, heaven forbid, a pedestrian — just for fun! You can buy mobile-phone jammers now, so it is not a giant step to think that these Av-hacking devices will also be available for a price (pun intended!)
Twice as high
The biggest problem facing the development of AVS is, wait for it — humans! The statistics suggest that humans are at fault in as many as 90 per cent of crashes. And apparently the numbers of accidents involving AVS are twice as high as those for regular cars. But the experts are quick to defend AVS, claiming that inattentive drivers inevitably hit the rear of some AVS because they were not proceeding as fast/far as was first thought. Just imagine that here in New Zealand! An AV is programmed to slow down and stop for an orange light. Bugger! All those idiots who would in any other circumstances hit the throttle to beat the red light will simply run up the rear of the AV! One of the advantages of driving yourself is that you can often make eye contact with the other driver, either immediately, or after you have blasted him/her with your Alpine horns. How would you alert an AV to your presence? Air horn? Can they be programmed to hear? Would they understand a hand gesture?
Remember the ‘watch out for the motorbike’ stickers? Will an AV be programmed to look out for us motorcyclists? And most important, what are the credentials of the AV programmers? Will an AV that was developed for the European market be able to run on New Zealand roads? Will it be programmed to watch out for kids suddenly running out onto the road? Or farm kids hurtling out of farm driveways on their ATVS or while not wearing a skid lid?
The experts are indicating that we will have fully functioning AVS by 2030 — that’s only 13 years from now! Those same experts also claim that by 2025 most of today’s drivers will be unlikely to even want to own a car. Well, that’s interesting. I certainly have no intention of handing over my safety to some suspect technology that is ripe for hacking and thus creating danger for the occupant. To quote Al from the Home Improvement TV series, “I don’t think so, Tim!” So what’s the solution? On an online auction site at the moment, someone is selling a couple of ex-army tanks. Maybe I should buy one of those? It would be no trouble getting parking at the supermarket, intersections would be a breeze, and mobilephone ditherers would simply become the muck that gets caught up in the tracks. Now, where’s my computer?