The perception that fully autonomous vehicles are just around the corner is off the mark, according to an expert in the field and plans being laid out by automakers.
While technology announcements keep rolling out from automakers, suppliers, and ride-hailing firms, fully automated vehicles are likely to be a decade or more down the road. It’s going to take that long to test and adopt systems considered to be 100-percent safe and capable of operating under any weather condition.
That perspective comes from Raj Rajkumar, co-director of the General Motors-Carnegie Mellon Autonomous Driving Collaborative Research Lab, and is shared by other experts at research centers. Carnegie Mellon has been working on self-driving vehicles since the 1980s.
The technology hurdles are plenty. Sensing equipment, such as cameras, lidar and radar, has to get more efficient, especially in inclement weather. It will also need to become less expensive to build autonomous vehicles at prices consumers will pay.
Software has to be refined that links the vehicle’s controls with all the sensing hardware, and it must be ready to deal with any possible scenario taking place on roads. Automated systems will have to be tied into the local infrastructure for information on traffic signals, bridges, lane markings, construction projects, collisions, and anything else affecting safe car trips.
“Self-driving cars can only do what programmers tell them to do,” said Rajkumar. “They can’t anticipate everything that can happen on the road.”
Automaker executives have a wide range of perspectives on when fully automated driving will be ready.
Toyota President Akio Toyoda said last month at the Paris Motor Show that fully autonomous driving, which the company calls chauffer mode, will require lengthy validation through extremely long miles on roads.
“In order to accomplish this safely, it is estimated that some 14.2 billion kilometers (8.8 billion miles) of testing, including simulation, are required,” Toyoda said.
By 2020 Volvo and Nissan will have fully autonomous vehicle technology in place, the companies said. Mercedes-Benz and Ford said the early 2020s, while Hyundai and Kia have set 2030 as the deadline.
Other automakers have taken different approaches. Porsche and Ferrari said they’ll never enter the fully automated vehicle arena. Subaru, Toyota, and Honda haven’t set dates and are only adding partial systems. Mazda and Mitsubishi are staying with “advanced safety systems.”
The Volkswagen I.D. concept car features retractable steering wheel for self-driving mode. VW hasn’t been clear about its overall automated vehicle strategy.
Fully autonomous vehicles are classified as a Level 5 vehicle by SAE International.
Adrian Lund, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the Highway Loss Data Institute, told Automotive News that getting to Level 4 in five years is possible.
A car with no steering wheel or pedals would make it a Level 5 automated vehicle. That’s at least 10 years away, Lund said.
Citing the fatal May 7 Tesla crash in Florida, Lund said he believes crash avoidance technology needs much more work to be ready for Level 4 automated driving by 2021.
“Part of the problem is if you think about getting to Level 4, that implies that the crash avoidance technology you have in these cars is almost perfect,” he said.
Lund believes accidents are not going to cease when self-driving cars are on the roads. It’s going to take several years of transition for all vehicles to be fully automated.
“These vehicles are going to have crashes, at least during a long transition period of when we have all types of vehicles on the road,” he said.
Huei Peng, director of the University of Michigan’s Mobility Transformation Center, sees self-driving technology maturing quickly with more automated driving features rolling out soon. But it may be decades before a vehicle can be fully automated and drive safely at any speed on any road in any weather.
“I would argue that if you just talk about technology and reasonable operating conditions, we can almost say we have systems that are safer than human drivers,” Peng said.
Peng cited Google’s self-driving car fleet, which has logged more than two million autonomous miles and caused just one minor accident.
“Robots always work best when they have rules,” Peng says. “What if other people are not following the rules? In the truest sense, Level 5 autonomous vehicles will take a very long time.”