Self-driving cars’ biggest hurdle? It’s people, says automaker chief
Dietmar Exler, chief executive of Mercedes-Benz USA, is often asked why it’s taking so long to develop self-driving cars.
It’s not technology, he tells them. That’s advancing fast.
It’s not insurance and liability issues. “I do believe in lawyers,” he said. “I’m a lawyer myself. We will solve these issues.”
It’s not customer acceptance. As soon as someone rides in a car that drives itself in bumper-to-bumper traffic, a convert is created, he said. “Who would argue that it’s fun to be out on the 10 [Freeway] between 5 and 6 p.m. on a weekday? “The real issue,” he said, “is humans.” The coexistence of human drivers and robot cars, to be precise.
Speaking at AutoConference LA, an event that preceded the L.A. Auto Show, Exler said even if completely driverless cars were available now, they’d be sharing the road with traditional cars for 20 to 25 years.
Some people are afraid of robots taking over. Exler is worried that humans will “bully” driverless cars.
Human drivers speed, drive erratically and cut in line. Driverless cars will be programmed to be polite and follow the law.
When someone tries to cut in line at a traffic merge, humans won’t let them in. But a driverless car will be programmed to stop when it sees an obstruction — like a line cutter. “They’ll look for the autonomous car and that’s where they’ll cut in,” he said.
Theoretically, robot cars could be programmed to be more aggressive, but he doubts that regulators would allow that.
Still, Mercedes-Benz is moving full speed ahead on semiautonomous and driverless cars. The company was worried that its customers, who tend to love driving nice cars, would resist.
Market testing showed otherwise. Exler talked about a 72-year-old SLS AMG owner. He said he’d never use driverless technology because it would be “boring.”
But when he got a ride in a driverless S500 Mercedes, his response, according to Exler, was: “I will buy this car right now. How much do you want for it?”