Self-driv­ing cars’ big­gest hur­dle? It’s peo­ple, says au­tomaker chief

Los Angeles Times - - HIGHWAY 1 - By Russ Mitchell russ.mitchell@la­times.com

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?”

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