Edi­tor’s Let­ter

Automobile - - Contents - By Mike Floyd

As we travel fur­ther into the un­known, the risks will in­crease.

IT DOESN’ T RE­ALLY mat­ter who I talk with—CE Os, friends, col­leagues, ran­dom peo­ple I’m in­tro­duced to—when the sub­ject turns to the fu­ture of the au­to­mo­bile, specif­i­cally au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cles, the con­ver­sa­tion starts to crackle.

Al­most ev­ery day there is an­other de­vel­op­ment, an­other story writ­ten, or an opin­ion of­fered (like this one).

Some of the lat­est pil­ing up in my in­box: There’s a new fog-pen­e­trat­ing imag­ing sys­tem be­ing de­vel­oped by MIT re­searchers that could change car cam­era tech­nol­ogy; a study by Ed Sap­pin, CEO of Sap­pin Global Strate­gies, that ex­am­ines whether self-driv­ing cars will kill the big au­tomak­ers; and a sur­vey from Ipsos that says one in four Amer­i­cans would “never use” an au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cle.

Then there’s the type of news that re­ally gets every­one’s dan­der up: when some­thing goes hay­wire. Re­ports of the death in March of 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg, who was hit and killed by a self-driv­ing Uber car in Tempe, Ari­zona, while cross­ing a dark road away from a cross­walk, was broad­cast breath­lessly around the world. It was the first known fa­tal­ity in­volv­ing a pedes­trian and a ve­hi­cle in au­ton­o­mous op­er­a­tion. Uber’s per­mit to op­er­ate its AV fleet in Ari­zona was sub­se­quently re­voked amid re­newed calls for more reg­u­la­tion and a full-scale re-ex­am­i­na­tion of our rush to­ward au­to­mo­tive au­ton­omy.

The in­ci­dent spurred us to have au­to­mo­tive tech­nol­ogy re­porter Doug New­comb ex­am­ine where this coun­try stands in terms of state and fed­eral gov­ern­ment ap­proaches to au­ton­o­mous-tech­nol­ogy test­ing. You can read his re­port be­gin­ning on page 98.

It was still a scald­ing hot-but­ton topic at a din­ner dur­ing the New York auto show I had with col­leagues, in­clud­ing New­comb and Wolfgang Ziebart, Jaguar Land Rover’s head of prod­uct de­vel­op­ment. There is a video of the crash, and af­ter watch­ing it, Ziebart ques­tioned how the tech­nol­ogy did not prop­erly de­tect Herzberg and re­act. Any­one with even base­line knowl­edge of how au­ton­o­mous sys­tems op­er­ate— let alone a sea­soned engi­neer­ing mind like Ziebart—would ar­rive at the same ques­tion. I know I did.

But such an in­ci­dent can­not lead to knee-jerk re­ac­tions. Some­thing went wrong. A life was lost. Lives are lost all the time when cars driven by hu­mans hit pedes­tri­ans. I’m not min­i­miz­ing Herzberg’s death but rather re­flect­ing on what it means. We can be afraid of tech­nol­ogy and the un­in­tended and some­times truly un­for­tu­nate con­se­quences that come along with it, but the ben­e­fits we can reap as a so­ci­ety could be tremen­dous and far-reach­ing.

That’s not to say the emerg­ing au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cle land­scape shouldn’t be reg­u­lated. As New­comb’s piece re­veals, what is hap­pen­ing now at the state and fed­eral level is woe­fully in­ad­e­quate. We need to have some real, top­down ac­tion to cre­ate a cli­mate where the progress be­ing made can be done safely and with some boundaries. Ad­di­tion­ally, those de­vel­op­ing the sys­tems need to slow their driver­less roll and bet­ter ad­dress the flaws and holes in their ap­proaches, as­sess where in­fra­struc­ture comes in and how cars will com­mu­ni­cate with it, how to best nav­i­gate the le­gal im­pli­ca­tions, and other ob­sta­cles.

One way to deal with test­ing, at least in the short run, is ge­ofenc­ing (essen­tially vir­tual boundaries us­ing GPS). If you as a non-au­ton­o­mous driver or pedes­trian en­ter a ge­ofenced zone, you would know that some cars run­ning within it are fully au­ton­o­mous, height­en­ing your aware­ness. It’s not hard to imag­ine a time soon where parts of Man­hat­tan could be ge­ofenced, where cabs and ride­hail­ing ve­hi­cles within it would be driver­less.

Most of the au­tomaker ex­ec­u­tives I’ve talked with lately are con­fi­dent they will be able to de­velop cars equipped with fully au­ton­o­mous sys­tems you’ll be able to turn on when you need/want them but turn off when you want to run free, to drive your­self. What they aren’t con­fi­dent about is when. They all claim the tech­nol­ogy has ba­si­cally taken shape, but it’s those last miles into the un­known that will be the hard­est.

Other than those one in four who say they will never let a car drive them, most peo­ple out­side of the au­to­mo­tive belt­way I talk with are in­trigued about the prospect of au­ton­o­mous cars. They want to be able to sleep in their car, work in their car. My par­ents are get­ting older. I worry about them trav­el­ing long dis­tances, and they hate traf­fic with a pas­sion. (Who doesn’t?) There’s noth­ing more I’d rather have them do than hit a but­ton and have them whisked to my house quickly and safely with­out lay­ing a hand on the wheel.

Some days I think that time is a long way away, 20 to 30 years at least. Oth­ers I think it’s closer. No mat­ter what, there will con­tinue to be risks and likely more sad in­ci­dents. We need to get bet­ter as a so­ci­ety at mit­i­gat­ing them.

Are you look­ing for­ward to the ad­vent of au­ton­o­mous cars? Or are you loathing the prospect of a self-driv­ing fu­ture? Let us know at let­ters@au­to­mo­bilemag.com. AM

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