DRIVERLESS CARS – NOT COM­ING SOON, AF­TER ALL

Driverless cars are not quite around the cor­ner as pre­vi­ously thought.

Torque (Singapore) - - CONTENTS -

AF­TER ini­tial years of hype and op­ti­mism, au­tonomous ve­hi­cles now look far­ther in the hori­zon than ever be­fore.

None of the pre­dic­tions made four or five years ago are close to fruition. In 2013, Nis­san Mo­tor said it will have driverless mod­els by 2020. Soon af­ter that state­ment, oth­ers like Gen­eral Mo­tors, Volk­swa­gen, Audi, Mercedes-Benz and Volvo jumped on the band­wagon with sim­i­lar pre­dic­tions.

They were joined by non­tra­di­tional au­to­mo­tive play­ers such as Ap­ple, Google and Uber – as well as dozens of like-minded com­pa­nies in China. Even the Pen­tagon an­nounced plans to go driverless.

In 2015, Tesla’s flam­boy­ant and some­what vo­cal chief Elon Musk said his com­pany

would have an au­tonomous model by this year (2018). Well, we are now well into the sec­ond half of 2018, and the only news we have been get­ting about driverless Tes­las has been less than pos­i­tive.

It is clear now that we are not go­ing to be see­ing driverless cars zip­ping about any time soon. The next ear­li­est tar­get, ac­cord­ing to ex­perts Torque spoke to, is 2030. And even then, it would be a rel­a­tively sim­ple ap­pli­ca­tion, such as pla­toon­ing or con­voy­ing func­tion on high­ways. Fully au­tonomous cars which can func­tion with no hu­man in­ter­ven­tion in city traf­fic will be even fur­ther down the road. The pro­gramme’s sud­den loss of verve can be at­trib­uted to a few fac­tors. One, it was over­sold from the start. While var­i­ous driver-as­sis­tance sys­tems are be­com­ing more com­mon­place across car brands, they do not amount to autonomy.

In fact, Tesla’s la­belling of its Au­topi­lot sys­tem has been named as one cul­prit in this area. Amer­ica’s rep­utable Con­sumer Re­ports, for one, has ques­tioned if the “Au­topi­lot” term had given own­ers a false no­tion that the car could drive all by it­self. Clearly, it can­not, as tragic crashes have proven be­yond a doubt. Such ac­ci­dents are the sec­ond rea­son why the au­tonomous pro­gramme is be­ing pushed back – vol­un­tar­ily or oth­er­wise. In May 2016, a Tesla Model S in Au­topi­lot mode crashed into a trailer at high speed, killing its driver. Ap­par­ently, the car’s sys­tem was con­fused by the high ride height of the trailer, and the sun’s re­flec­tion on its side.

In March this year, an Uber driverless test ve­hi­cle – a Volvo XC90 – ran into and killed a pedes­trian cross­ing the road. None of the car’s so­phis­ti­cated ob­sta­cle-de­tec­tion sys­tems man­aged to pre­vent the fa­tal crash.

THE DAY WILL COME WHEN DRIVERLESS-CAR TECH­NOL­OGY REACHES A LEVEL OF READINESS, BUT NO ONE KNOWS WHEN THAT DAY WILL AC­TU­ALLY AR­RIVE.

That same month, a Tesla Model X ploughed into a road di­vider, killing its driver. As with most other sim­i­lar ac­ci­dents in­volv­ing Au­topi­lot, the car had sped up be­fore the crash.

All three fa­tal ac­ci­dents hap­pened in the US, but there has been at least one out­side Amer­ica. In Jan­uary 2016, a Tesla Model S crashed into a road sweeper in Han­dan, He­bei prov­ince, China, killing its driver. The third rea­son – and prob­a­bly the most per­ti­nent one – is that com­pa­nies are be­gin­ning to re­alise that the tech­nol­ogy re­quired for let­ting cars drive on their own is not quite ready for im­ple­men­ta­tion in the real world. While tests on high­ways and less-than-busy sub­urbs have been con­ducted with rel­a­tive success, there is still much to be done be­fore au­tonomous ve­hi­cles can fend for them­selves in busy down­town traf­fic. Which may ex­plain why the com­pa­nies which have been un­abashedly bullish with their pre­dic­tions in the last five years have sud­denly gone quiet.

Take Ap­ple, for in­stance. The firm best known for its mo­bile and desk­top prod­ucts was among those most op­ti­mistic about a driverless world. But of late, it has be­come un­char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally silent, spark­ing spec­u­la­tion that it has shelved the project. As it turns out, Ap­ple has re­alised that it can­not go it alone, and has sought part­ner­ships with var­i­ous au­to­mo­tive groups. Af­ter long-drawn ne­go­ti­a­tions, Ap­ple has man­aged to per­suade Volk­swa­gen to jointly de­velop a driverless car based on the VW Trans­porter van, ac­cord­ing to a re­port by the New York Times.

All the other au­to­mo­tive man­u­fac­tur­ers which pro­claimed a driverless fu­ture have also be­come rather mum of late. With all the un­cer­tain­ties and per­ils which have emerged in the last five years. it will be un­der­stand­able if these com­pa­nies pulled the hand­brake on their au­tonomous-driv­ing projects.

Does that mean driverless cars are doomed? Not quite. The day will come when the tech­nol­ogy reaches a level of readiness. Just that no one knows when that day will ac­tu­ally ar­rive. Good news for driv­ing en­thu­si­asts, then.

SEPTEM­BER 2018

Fully au­tonomous ve­hi­cles will al­low the driver to do some­thing else or noth­ing at all dur­ing the drive, but the tech has hit some speed bumps.

“Au­topi­lot” for au­to­mo­biles hasn’t taken off de­spite all the hype, tests and demos in the last five years.

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