For many people, fully autonomous cars may seem still off in an uncertain future, but the radical changes they’re projected to bring are approaching.
Their ascendancy into the public arena has meanwhile captured the imagination of people for the good they are promised to bring to society, including mobility for the infirm and non-driving elderly, children, and they hold out other positive benefits besides.
At the same time, skeptics of the potential solution dangling before our eyes have said be careful what you wish for, as interlaced with ostensible benefits are a host of major shifts in society and the economy projected to accompany vehicles that drive themselves.
Certainly the technology is being taken seriously, and financial and engineering resources are being devoted by most major automakers, as well as companies that supply carmakers, and aspiring carmakers as well.
Ford’s President and CEO Mark Fields has beaten the band that by 2021 a car better looking than what Google is now parading, but similar in that it has no pedals or steering wheel, will be in limited commercial use.
The Dearborn automaker has also said it sees eventual mass-produced autonomous cars as bringing changes to our world as profound as its most treasured heritage and point of company pride.
“We believe that the next decade is going to be defined by the automation of the automobile,” said Fields this month at Ford’s headquarters. “In fact we see autonomous vehicles as having as significant an impact on society as Ford’s moving assembly line did more than 100 years ago.”
Other companies racing on parallel development paths towards the same as-yet nebulous goal include Tesla, GM, Daimler/Mercedes-Benz, Volvo, Toyota, Lexus, Honda, Acura, Nissan, Infiniti Audi, Porsche, VW, and BMW, Hyundai, Kia, and more.
Several of these entities, as well as Google, have publicly stated timelines for varying degrees of autonomous technology more advanced than Tesla’s semi-autonomous Autopilot as soon as a couple years from now, into early next decade.
Beyond these, are reportedly Apple, Chinese-backed startups Faraday Future, LeEco,and more. Also, said Michigan-based green car analyst Alan Baum., suppliers working on their own solutions include Delphi, Denso, Continental, Bosch, ZF/TRW, Mobileye, and Velodyne,
In short, everyone who is someone in the auto industry, is racing to get you a car that will pilot you unfettered from distractions like steering, accelerating, and braking.
Bullish and Bearish Outlooks
Headlines have for a few years now reported cars that may drive autonomously in relatively tame situations.
There are a few standards of grading the degrees of autonomous drive capability, and a couple in the U.S. are by the National Highway Transportation Administration, and the SAE. These numerically score from a base level of full driver involvement/zero autonomy, to degrees of autonomy up to fully driverless at level 4 for NHTSA, or level 5 meaning the same basic thing by SAE.
Perhaps one of the reasons the public is still standing back is that there have been conflicting projections on true driverless tech being ready for general public use without the use of 3D maps, and geofenced areas such as Ford is starting with by 2021.
In October 2014, Tesla head Elon Musk estimated that “five or six years from now we will be able to achieve true autonomous driving where you could literally get in the car, go to sleep and wake up at your destination.”
Nissan also has projected a timeline of consumer vehicles by decade’s end, with greater progress into next decade.
Other bullish statements have come from various companies, but alternately, in an August 2016 report by MIT Technology Review, the takeaway, focusing on Ford, but with broader implications for the industry, was don’t believe the hype.
The article quoted an expert with more than 20 years experience working on the technology, Steven Shladover of the University of California, Berkeley, who expressed doubt about unbridled freedom as soon as others have hoped.
“It ain’t going to be five years,” said Shladover. “The hype has gotten totally out of sync with reality.”
For all the news value a promised car by 2021 without steering wheel and pedals has garnered Ford, Princeton professor and director of its transportation program Alain Kornhauser, said these will be on a strict leash.
“By then we may be able to define [a] ‘fenced’ region of space where we can in fact let cars out there without a driver,” he says. “The challenge will be making that fenced-in area large enough so that it provides a valuable service.”
Ford has projected vaguely by mid decade fully autonomous cars we all may buy could be for sale, but it as do others politely refer to “challenges” that must first be overcome.
The gee-whiz demonstrations of cars that can pilot around a closed course in clear, dry weather are about the level of a nursery school student still not able to play with the big kids.
Autonomous cars may use overlapping technology to present an image to the computer brain for the vehicle to “see” and make decisions in a nano second. Sensors include cameras, sonar, LIDAR, radar, and GPS.
To date, things that can baffle self-driving cars include rain, snow, hail, and sleet. Also being able to recognize hand signals is a an obstacle yet to be perfected. Further, not having the ability as of yet to make eye contact with other drivers (or vehicles) present hurdles before the cars are truly off leash.
Another hurdle is, say, if a pedestrian walks across the road, and the car is programmed to stop and yield – but instead the pedestrian offers the car the right of way. Who will settle this standoff in congeniality is another challenge among many.
In the encyclopedia under Unintended Consequences, there are some who’d just as soon put the photo of an autonomus car as a case example.
Like a Trojan horse that looks like a phenomenal gift, skeptics have warned about a dark side or at least radical changes coming.
Traditional auto writers have been among those who look at them with suspicion, as they do indeed stand to relegate the driver to chief occupant, undermining their passion for driving.
Apart from any self-oriented motives, Car and Driver’s Benjamin Preston documents a scenario that even George Orwell did not as clearly define, but one just as concerning.
What happens if all the tech hurdles are worked out and fully autonomous cars start to be sold by the thousands, then millions? Driverless cars still will not be infallible, writes Preston, this will also present a target for hackers and other bad actors to co-opt control of a vehicle you trust with your safety. Whether this is likely, there are other changes on the horizon with greater projected possibility of coming true.
For example, the loss of jobs is projected. Citing Oxford University’s Oxford Martin School’s Programme on the Impacts of Future Technology, computerization in general stands to cut half of all U.S. jobs in the next 20 years.
Looking at computerized self-driving cars, 200,000 taxi drivers plus 3.4 million truck drivers are standing in the way of the driver-free future, says Preston.
A 2014 video by Daimler AG however addresses this concern, saying its Future Truck 2025 would not replace the driver, but concerns remain.
Looking at such things as a positive, voices from the industry development side have observed that autonomous cars stand to do for driving jobs what robots have done for manufacturing jobs – displacing humans, while big businesses profit.
“If you were to take the ride service model, the most expensive thing in that model is actually the driver,” said Raj Nair, executive vice president for product development, and chief technology officer of autonomous ride sharing cars that cost one-sixth as much per mile to operate as do conventional taxis. “And if you were to automate it – just like a robot were replacing an operator in a factory – automating that, you could reduce the cost per mile to let’s say a buck a mile.”
Of course consumers are promised benefit in this scenario, and others, but again, it may not all be as utopian as some imagine.
Another kicker for governments, according to research from the Brookings Institute, will be the loss of revenue from parking tickets and speeding and other moving violation citations, as the good citizen autonomous cars will not be scofflaws like their human counterparts.
For all the fuss law enforcement might make over infractions against traffic laws, governments count on the law-breaking populace as a form of revenue, and this stands to be eroded.
Others might say this is a net positive, but selling new taxes to replace lost revenue streams is never popular, and in any case, is presented as a potential challenge in the next decade or maybe longer.
If that is not enough, autonomous cars have also cast a not-so flattering light on humanity. Part of the reason why policymakers and the public are clamoriong for them as of yesterday, say critics in blunt terms, boils down to reasons including laziness, incompetence, and lack of personal accountability.
Policymakers have decried a distracted driving “epidemic” as though a new strain of disease has infected society, and the solution, observes Preston, is to relieve drivers of responsibility, not correct their behaviors.
Same goes for driver training and expected competence, which once upon a time was the recommended procedure, but instead, we want machines to do it for us.
Volvo’s Concept 26 is a prime example, in which the driver may switch attention from road, seat pushes back away from the controls, and a 25-inch screen comes into view in place of the front windscreen. Here in “Relax” mode, the car of the future can let the comfortable worker use his or her commute time to get started on the work day for the boss, or one may just kick back and watch some content, or otherwise use the time.
“As driverless vehicles take root, futurists see autonomy reshaping the country as completely as did the automobile itself,” writes Preston.
Citing the director of equity research at Barclays Capital, Brian Johnson, it’s believed that shared ownership of future vehicles could displace privately owned cars.
These and other shifts may come along with the most profound technology since the moving assembly line, as Ford says, or automobile itself according to other pundits.
Ethical concerns transcend minor offenses like Mercedes-Benz or Tesla overstating implicit capabilities of present day semi-autonomous cars.
Life and death decisions such as society has not yet had to accept could be delegated to our vehicles assuming the futurists’ wildest dreams come true.
That a dialogue needs to happen soon if not now has been the not-well-heard refrain of numerous groups, including consumer watchdogs such as the Consumer Federation of America and Consumer Reports.
Knowing that the discussion needs to take place, even automakers like Ford have said from the top the public has been too silent on what is predicted to impact the society potentially more than whether Hilary or Donald get elected in November.
“I think that’s going to require some very deep and meaningful conversation as a society in terms of how do we want these vehicles to behave, whose lives are they going to save?” said Executive Chairman Bill Ford. “And no one company is going to settle that.”
Meanwhile, as the public, policymakers, and the industry are selling the sizzle of autonomous cars, people will have to accept all that comes with them, and this conversation starter barely scratches the surface.