More often than not news of “autonomous” cars that operate without a driver has been positive but last week in Tokyo their future was being predicted as having far more hurdles than is commonly reported.

This widespread view was voiced by engineers and IT experts at the ITS World Congress, a venue that in previous years has seen far more bullishness on driverless technology such as being pioneered by Nissan, Tesla, and Google which are racing to an end-of-decade projected target deadline.

Less concerning is the prospect of getting a single experimental car to operate, and this has already been demonstrated, but things get radically more daunting when the notion is raised of streets full of cars operating together with no human at the wheel.

Hurdles include massive projected costs, connectivity barriers, liability questions, regulatory unknowns, lack of universal industry standards, and other technological limitations. These were all mentioned last week by engineers, IT specialists and others contemplating mass autonomous vehicle adoption.

This is ironic according to a report by Automotive News that observed in previous years the people who are now throwing a wet blanket on autonomous vehicles are the same ones who hyped them up at previous meetings of the ITS World Congress.

Several Barriers

Technological paths vary among developers or “operators” creating autonomous cars, and they have their respective pros and cons.

Autonomous technologies rely on wi-fi networks to control a vehicle careening down the road. These involve massive data streams of 1 gigabyte per minute monitoring all aspects of the vehicle, keeping it at speed, in place on the road, with myriad variables to contemplate like staying tuned to roadside sensors, mindful of stray pedestrians, objects in the road, curbsides, street signs and signals, and more.

Systems that might use cellphone networks or wireless communications are known as “Dedicated Short-Range Communication,” and getting these right is considered critical to making autonomous vehicles happen.

Christoph Hagedorn, CEO of Continental Japan, told Automotive News the data stream is “huge” and can be too much even for today’s 4G LTE cell networks.

“It’s no longer a challenge of the automotive industry. It’s actually becoming an IT challenge,” he said.

Another challenge to mass proliferation is limitations with sensors. A driving demonstration of an experimental autonomous Mitsubishi Outlander failed to warn the occupant sitting in the driver’s seat of unaware pedestrians or motorcycles in the car’s blind spot.

Another time its “Caution, Oncoming Vehicle” buzzer sounded an alert to pedestrians, but it was tough to pinpoint which vehicle among several the warning was coming from.

Nissans such as its experimental autonomous Leaf – shown in a positive report from another event below – could get around some issues by being equipped with multiple radar sensors, lasers and cameras to monitor surroundings and plot the car’s course.

But sensors can’t see well around corners or blind spots miles down the road. And cars’ computers must instantaneously crunch millions of driving scenarios.

“The biggest obstacle is the millions of different driving scenarios you have to face,” Hagedorn said. “There are so many driving scenarios it will probably require years of validation.”

Another issue standing in the way is the cost to dot the landscape with sensors and radios needed to feed data to the cars as they roll down the road.

These would alert of construction work underway, traffic jams, oncoming cars, blind spots, emergency vehicles or hidden stop signs, and such systems are already in place in Japan and plans in South Korea and Europe also call for them.

A universal standard is seen as needed so all cars will operate across the platform and these would have to be at every intersection, say those researching the issues.

In New York City, an estimated 13,000 intersections would need to be wired with these state-of-the art technologies and the money seems daunting to those who have been pushing autonomous technology.

“Do the math,” said John Tipaldo, director of systems engineering at the New York City Department of Transportation. “It means I’ve got to find a lot of money, which I don’t have. All areas have the same issue. We’re not at the forefront of this, because of the economics.”

Other issues to overcome include fear of lawsuits if an accident happened, and rules needed to be set by regulators also.

Operators of autonomous vehicles are meanwhile pushing full steam ahead to develop the techniologies and test them, but several among them are saying the timing needs to be reconsidered to well beyond the estimated 2020 or so projected by Nissan, Tesla and Google.

Automotive News