Autonomous vehicles are closer than you think
Many automobiles on the road today have semi-autonomous features. it’s likely that fully autonomous vehicles will be sharing the roadways with user-operated vehicles within five to 10 years.
(TORU YAMANAKA / AFP/GETTY IMAGES)
Five years ago, the idea of sharing our roads and highways with autonomous vehicles seemed like a pipe dream.
Here it is 2016, and that dream is moving closer to reality as automakers, software firms, consumers, governments and other stakeholders grapple with the logistics and legalities of automated vehicles.
Barely a week goes by where we don’t learn about an important new development in this burgeoning field. Most major automakers are actively pursuing AV technologies and partnerships; some more aggressively than others.
Honda, General Motors, Toyota, and Ford have each invested $1 million U.S. in a project called Mcity in Michigan, a controlled, 32-acre simulated environment where automakers can test “connected and automated vehicles technologies that will lead the way to mass-market driverless cars,” the University of Michigan reports.
In January, I attended the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas and saw a presentation from Toyota, which has invested $100 million U.S. ($50 million in Stanford and $50 million at MIT) to study what happens when debris falls off a dump truck and an autonomous vehicle follows it.
Closer to home, the Ontario government launched a pilot project in January (a first in Canada) that allows AVs to be tested on Ontario roads. The program — which lets AVs operate under controlled environments — will help the nearly 100 companies and institutions that are involved in the connected and automated vehicle industry.
Ontario Transportation Minister Steven Del Duca says that there has already been a lot of interest and excitement from both the auto sector and educational research institutions about AVs, and he expects to see participants in this pilot project in the near future.
As automakers and software firms hone their technologies for semi-automated and fully automated vehicles, obvious questions arise about the safety, management and legalities of giving driverless cars the green light.
Let’s take safety. Research has shown that algorithms are great at identifying speed limits, approaching vehicles and traffic lights, but they are no match for the split-second decisions that drivers face when, for instance, a child darts in front of a moving vehicle, or manoeuvering a vehicle in a severe snowstorm.
Automated vehicles are subject to these types of vulnerabilities, as well as to computer viruses and cyberattacks. Last year, researchers conducted a controlled experiment with a reporter from Wired magazine, who was driving a Jeep Cherokee. Researchers remotely took control of some of the car’s functions, and the situation quickly became dangerous.
This experiment resulted in Chrysler recalling 1.4 million vehicles in the U.S. and served as a sobering wake-up call to the auto industry and the public about how vulnerable automobile software can be. Other manufacturers can be just as vulnerable.
Then there is the issue of liability. Who is ultimately at fault if an automated vehicle is involved in an accident? The driver, the automaker or the software developer? How would insurance rates be affected?
The potential benefits of autonomous vehicles are many. The improved fuel efficiency and reduced vehicle emissions of AVs will enhance sustainability. With cars travelling at the same speed, in unison, there is no rubbernecking, tailgating and frequent acceleration and deceleration, which affects fuel efficiency.
Fuel consumption could be further reduced by drivers spending less time looking for a parking spot, particularly in urban areas.
Another important benefit would be fewer auto accidents — a report by McKinsey & Co. says that autonomous vehicles could reduce accidents by 90 per cent.
Many automobiles on the road today have semi-autonomous features already, and in the next five to 10 years, based on current trends, it’s likely that fully autonomous vehicles will be sharing the roadways with user-operated vehicles.
It’s a scary thought, but an exciting one, too.