By on August 7, 2012

Just when America’s most promising generation turns up its nose at cars, new technology rides to the rescue of the embattled industry: Cars that do away with drivers. A study by the automaker and union-funded think tank Center For Automotive Research (CAR) and the CPA firm KPMG comes to the conclusion that with self-driving vehicles, “the industry appears to be on the cusp of revolutionary change.”  Do you buy that? Jay or nay?

Says a press release announcing the study:

The report points out that the new technology could provide solutions to some of our most intractable social problems — the high cost of traffic crashes and transportation infrastructure, the millions of hours wasted in traffic jams, and the wasted urban space given over to parking lots, just to name a few.”

What do you think?  Are they on crack, or are they cracking intractable social problems? And honestly, would you want to be driven around in a car with a giant dildo strapped to its roof?

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55 Comments on “… But Then, Who Needs New Drivers If Cars Can Drive Themselves?...”


  • avatar
    homeworld1031tx

    I’m looking forward to driverless cars and think that they’ll appear sooner rather than later. The technology is already essentially there and isn’t that expensive off the bat, all that we’re waiting on is government approval and regulation of it. What makes it even more interesting is that most cars built in the next ten years will be fairly easy to retrofit. All cars have electronic throttles, many (ok, many luxury cars at least) now feature electronic steering – all we’re missing is braking to cover the classical driving bases. The added cost will be negated by the need for a family to have fewer cars (your car can drive itself back to the house while one is at work to pick the other up so he/she can do chores, etc.)

    I’m most interested in the way they’ll save us from the hell we call traffic

    • 0 avatar
      icemilkcoffee

      I am going to guess that a retrofit will cost about as much as a new car given the labor it would cost to install such a system.

      Also- to truly take advantage of this technology, you need to chain the cars together on the freeway to form a streamlined caravan. That way a long line of cars can draft behind each other and save gas. To do this, you would need some kind of latch-up mechanism. That’s something you can’t really retrofit into an old car.

      • 0 avatar
        KixStart

        Do you mean physical latch-up? I wouldn’t think so… radar-controlled guidance should allow cars to follow closely enough to realize significant fuel savings. NASCAR drivers do it!

      • 0 avatar
        homeworld1031tx

        I disagree that installing them will be expensive. Even current driverless cars, aside from a powerful computer, have very little gear. front and rear mounted radar, a binocular front mounted camera, and some form of front mounted LIDAR. And then of course trivial things like GPS and a user interface. Those can all be integrated into a single unit. The hardest part will be mating the the cars computer – each car would have to have a unique harness to sit in between the original harness and the cars ECU.

        And yes, the cars would have to be networked to benefit traffic, but I thought that would be a given considering how simple it is. The computer would know what cars are automated (they could communicate over something as simple as wifi), and then what cars aren’t because it could ‘see’ them with its sensors but wouldn’t be receiving a signal from them.

      • 0 avatar
        Landcrusher

        Volvo is involved in a program where cars form ad hoc platoons behind trucks. You join or leave at will and are charged a small fee to pay the trucker. Works pretty well in testing.

      • 0 avatar
        mr_muttonchops

        So basically we need more trains?

      • 0 avatar
        Nicholas Weaver

        A retrofit on something like a Prius (or anything with drive by wire and electric power steering) is actually pretty reasonable: you stick a device on the CAN-bus and it can now control everything: gas, brakes, steering, etc.

        So the labor cost is really Not That Much, as a modern car already has all the hooks needed to do it: the labor cost should be not much more than that required to install a new stereo and speakers.

    • 0 avatar
      mcs

      Retrofit won’t be difficult. The DARPA Challenge I’m currently working on requires a robot to be able to drive an existing vehicle – unmodified.

      The problem is that the technology ISN’T essentially there. Currently, we have collision detection, but collision anticipation isn’t there yet. Especially in terms of object detection and behavior analysis on the object.

      Think of a ball rolling into a street. The vehicle needs to not only understand and recognize the ball. It needs to understand that a child might be unseen and running to get the ball. That takes a hell of a lot of computing power – especially when you need to track and recognize multiple objects.

      Other situations such as areas where you’re required to slow down when children are present. Care to think of how much code and computing power is required to determine if it’s a child walking on the sidewalk? I could go on and on.

      There are other problems as well – but I don’t have time to elaborate. My background is aviation collision avoidance and I’m currently working on a partially autonomous system for the ground.

      • 0 avatar
        Landcrusher

        My Volvo already reads speed limit signs. I have never seen a when children present sign, though it’s a good idea. I have seen when workers present. A robot should simply follow the worst case limit. The passengers won’t care so much if they are relaxing.

      • 0 avatar
        homeworld1031tx

        Landcrusher: exactly. If something intrudes into the driving line – whether it’s a person, a ball, or a plastic bag that a normal driver would normally mow over, an autonomous car should slow down to avoid it. If all cars were linked together then you could also negate the problem of causing traffic behind you to slam into your stopped car.

        I don’t claim to know more about this stuff than someone who is actually in the industry, but based on the way google’s fleet has been performing, i think that in 10 years the tech will easily be ready

      • 0 avatar
        mcs

        “Landcrusher: exactly. If something intrudes into the driving line – whether it’s a person, a ball, or a plastic bag that a normal driver would normally mow over, an autonomous car should slow down to avoid it.”

        The problem is that in the case of the rolling ball, the sensor may accurately determine that the ball will clear the crossing point by the time the car reaches the crossing point and not hit the brakes. And, it’s quite possible that the ball would in fact be out of the way – but it’s the hidden hazard that is the problem. Also, do you really want to jam on the brakes in the fast lane at 80mph to avoid a plastic bag?

        BTW I just grabbed a copy of the KPMG Report and this scenario is cited on page 12 paragraph (a) as an example of the AI issues that need to be overcome.

        We’re working on the issues – it’s just going to take some time.

      • 0 avatar
        protomech

        A child chasing a ball is an edge case. Certainly, it happens – the exact thing you’re describing happened to me not more than six months ago, and I recognized and braked pre-emptively before a child ran out in front of my car. I doubt we’ll ever solve all edge cases – an autonomous car will never be an collision-free car. It’s not a question of whether / when we can solve all edge cases, but at what point an autonomous car will be dramatically safer than a human-piloted car.

        In the meantime, we’ll keep whittling away at those edge cases.

        The obvious first application is freeway driving. There are many fewer edge cases, the driving is largely boring, and it’s undertaken solely to get from point A to point B.

      • 0 avatar
        Steve65

        “I have never seen a when children present sign”

        Seriously? Where do you live? In California, every “School Zone” speed limit is designated as “when children are present”.

      • 0 avatar
        Landcrusher

        In Texas the signs have a time period or a flashing light to denote when you must slow down. I have driven around Cali though, so I must have seen one and forgotten.

    • 0 avatar

      >I’m most interested in the way they’ll save us from the hell we call traffic

      I think that we need to make a cultural change and embrace telecommuting where possible. Many workers will always need to go in to the office… service jobs, for example. But “information workers” can often do their jobs just fine from home.

    • 0 avatar
      Nicholas Weaver

      My dad will buy a self driving car when its a $10K premium option. Period.

      There are two things currently limiting this:

      a) The sensors are exxxpensiveeee. The laser rangefinder on the Google cars is $60K.

      b) Liability headaches when brought into production. We aren’t New Zealand (where they’ve basically killed the notion of personal injury attorneys). In the US, if a driver in a car screws up and kills someone, eh, whatever, that happens 60K times a year…

      But if a driverless car is in a crash, even if its the fault of the other car, you know there will be an expensive, multi-multi-million dollar lawsuit.

  • avatar
    icemilkcoffee

    I’m surprised that Google is leading this effort and the carmakers are taking a backseat. The carmakers should get together and work out a common standard, otherwise Google will do it for them.

    This is going to be huge. As huge as the transition from horse drawn carriages to cars.

    • 0 avatar
      KixStart

      I think the automakers are more worried about liability than Google is.

      Perhaps their fears are justified. Google hasn’t been recalling cars because their customers can’t figure out how to install a floor mat.

    • 0 avatar

      I think there is more work being done by car makers than you would think; it’s just that Google’s project is more public.

      Note that virtually every car-maker is offering creeping steps towards self-driving cars, with thinks like lane-keeping, distance-keeping cruise control, and much more. These are incremental moves to full self-driving. Car makers were also involved with the various DARPA Grand Challenges, though more as sponsors than tech support, I think.

      Put me down as “faster, please” on autonomous cars. I like driving for pleasure just fine, but most of my driving is non-commuting shopping/pleasure trips from the suburbs to town, and it is not a pleasure. I’d rather be doing something else, and leave the driving to a computer.

  • avatar
    redrum

    Driverless cars (or whatever you want to call them) are the future. Obviously there are many details to work out, but just think of the theoretical benefits: vastly fewer collisions, more efficient traffic flow (e.g. a computer will always be paying attention when the light turns green, can merge flawlessly, can maintain a perfect following distance, and won’t rubberneck at distractions), reduce the need for parking (it’d be like having your own personal driver who can drop you off and pick you up on demand), and so on.

    It’s just a matter of when.

    • 0 avatar
      LeMansteve

      Exactly. Many theoretical efficiency gains when you eliminate the “slop” in the system due to limited human capabilities. It’s hard to really imagine the entire scope of changes that will be brought about by an automated network of vehicles.

  • avatar
    KixStart

    There needs to be at least one more poll selection… I think they’ll revolutionize something but it won’t necessarily be the car industry. Widespread adoption may very well mean fewer accidents and therefore fewer car sales but, aside from that, it will just be an expensive option to existing vehicles. Think of it in terms of raising the average transaction price.

    And stop teasing me with these articles. For the reasons redrum outlined, I want one. Sell me one already!

  • avatar
    Glenn Mercer

    Okay, let me do the CYA part first: I like autonomous cars. I think they make sense and will bring numerous benefits. The technology is probably very close to being ready (depending on precisely what level of autonomy we are talking about). I am a fan. I am a proponent. Clear?

    Okay, here is my concern: I do not think we have heard enough yet from the lawyers.

    (Insert here whatever rant you prefer as to whether the USA is too litigious, or not, or whether regulations are good or bad or whether politicians suck or not — I don’t care, I am not talking here about what SHOULD be the case, but what IS the case.)

    Will legal issues be the ultimate gating factor for autonomous cars?

    If the car is TRULY autonomous, and then runs over and kills someone, then who is liable? Car company? System supplier? GPS system (if it is involved)? Imagine the media field day: “FrankenCar Kills Child of Five!” (Don’t tell me an autonomous car will never kill someone: Americans drive THREE TRILLION miles a year, no technology is that perfect.)

    If the car is NOT truly autonomous, and the driver is supposed to seize control in the event of a deteriorating situation, and someone is killed, who is liable? Someone darts out in front of your car, the AI turns control over to you, but your reflexes are not fast enough or maybe you were not paying attention. Who is liable?

    A couple of years ago a brake engineer told me the only reason we still have hydraulic brakes rather than electric ones (I mean, we are driving around carrying a full plumbing system with us?) is that no OEM executive wants to be on the witness stand at some point saying “Yes, the hydraulic system worked just fine, but we replaced it with an electronic system because it was supposed to be better, ,and yes it failed and now your child is dead and we are very sorry.”

    The best often is defeated at the hands of the merely good.

    Are there attorneys reading this blog who can start to illuminate the legal issues here?

    • 0 avatar
      Landcrusher

      Why would electric be better?

      We seem to be putting chips in places we never should. If its electric, it gets chipped for stupid reasons. If you can make electric brakes that won’t kill anyone, then they can be better. Otherwise, no.

    • 0 avatar
      mcs

      The legal issues are simple. The human in the car is the one responsible. Take a look at Nevada’s autonomous vehicle law.

      • 0 avatar
        Glenn Mercer

        That is helpful, I will look it up (Nevada law). Never thought I’d hear “legal issues” and “simple” in the same sentence, though! (grin) I think we need a new word, though, or phrase, for these cars. “Autonomous with constant human monitoring” or something like that. I tend to assume “autonomous” means “operating on their own,” but while that is true technically for the car itself, it will not be true legally for the car/human system. Maybe we need to thaw out Asimov and ask him for robotics rules adapted for the road…

      • 0 avatar
        nikita

        The legal issues arent particularly simple now. Basically the owner/operator (not necessarily driver) is responsible tort-wise, unless the manufacturer and/or seller is responsible for a causing defect. The driver could separately be responsible criminally.

        Airliners have had auto-land capability for decades. Its not used in the United States, probably due to legal tort issues. Is the Airline, Boeing, Honeywell or all of the above responsible for the dead bodies?

    • 0 avatar
      ihatetrees

      Unless there’s some sort of grand compromise on liability (like the one that saved the small aircraft industry 30+ years ago), potential liability will keep autonomous cars still-born in the US.

      Maybe after a decade of other nations (like Canada, Germany, Japan) showing us how easily this could work, will it be adopted here. Never underestimate the American bar.

      • 0 avatar
        jpolicke

        Not going to happen until you do a Shakespeare and “kill all the lawyers”. Or devise drive-through courtrooms to handle the avalanche of claims. Because every system devised by man will malfunction sooner or later, and then will come the lawsuits, with the vehicle manufacturers blaming the highway engineers, etc. And you’ll be a defendant in a mishap when you weren’t even there as your car is involved in a wreck while it was “deadheading” back home to pick up the other user (certainly can’t call them a “driver”).

  • avatar
    Sttocs

    It seems obvious to me that driverless cars will happen eventually. What’s interesting is what will happen afterwards. In a generation or two people won’t feel that attached to “their” cars, and do the cold hard math on car ownership. So will we have driverless taxis, aka Johnny Cabs, be the predominant mode of transportation? But if we get to the point where no one owns or drives cars, is it just an anti-social bus?

    I think driverless cars are the first step down the slippery slope to public transportation, with all the good and bad that entails. For being a car guy, I’m fairly upbeat about it. You may not drive a car on a daily basis, but that doesn’t stop you from going to a track on weekends — which beats the hell out of the stop-n-go derby.

  • avatar
    carve

    These are absolutely the way of the future. Accidents due to stupid, old, and inattentive drivers will basically go away. You’ll still have some accidents due to unforseen situations, like a fallen tree, flooded road, or animals as well as occasional mechanical failures. The lawyers will have to work this out (LOL- could you imagine the legal mess if the motorcycle was just invented today!?) Also, electric controls are already replacing hydraulics in advanced aircraft.

    Besides reduced accidents, think of the spiraling benefits. This will be a revolutionary time and money saver.

    -The active safety will reduce the need for passive safety, making for lighter, faster, cheaper, more efficient cars
    –The reduced weight will require smaller batteries, making electric cars affordable
    -Our national infrastructure will double or triple in capacity. Cars will go 100 mph inches apart on the freeways. Traffic will be coordinated to re-route around bottlenecks or open drawbridges. Eventually, intersections could be electronically controlled, with cars continously flowing through in all directions, coordinated to miss each other.
    -Auto fatalities will cease to be the leading cause of death, saving trillions in lost productivity. Prodictivity will be further enhanced by being able to telecommute or have breakfast on your way to work.

  • avatar
    Viquitor

    Unless I take the backseat of a police car, or maybe an ambulance or a hearse, I will not ever give up on driving myself around.

    I don’t even like taxicabs.

    Come on… What’s next? Maybe they’ll abolish sexual intercourse in favor of better genetic selection in labs.

    • 0 avatar
      multicam

      I”m with you and not particularly excited about a future where I just get whizzed around by machines and computers. What happened to being involved in what’s actually going on in your life? Being aware of your surroundings, having a connection with what you’re doing… I don’t want to be a passenger on the road of life, thanks.

  • avatar
    Freddy M

    My personal opinion is no, I don’t want an autonomobile. But I can’t ignore the facts of technology and society and I have to agree with the posters above that these cars are the future. How far into the future is dependent upon when the powers that be can work out all the liabilities.

  • avatar
    dolorean

    Magic 8 ball says, “Check again later”.

    Digging the fleet of Opel Astra XRs. Like an early squadron of Imperial TieFighters.

  • avatar
    mcs

    Hopefully I’ll be able to get an autonomous vehicle retrofit for my 1970′s vintage flying car.

  • avatar
    Pch101

    I don’t see why an automaker would want the liability.

  • avatar
    Robert Schwartz

    I was on the freeway this morning headed to the other side of town. I had both hands on the wheel and I was carefully observing the cars around me and the general flow of traffic.

    What I saw was the most of the drivers were not paying attention, they were texting, talking on the phone while they looked at papers on the seat next to them …

    Autonomous systems can not come soon enough.

    First they will be options, but later on, as people get used to them, they will be mandatory.

    Legal issues. Come on. Legislators can be bought.

    Taxi systems. The bedbug problem will probably prevent the development a mass rental system. Unless Americans become as meticulously hygienic as the Japanese, publicly used vehicles will not become popular.

  • avatar
    stryker1

    If you buy the premise that driver-less cars will exist and work as advertised, I think it follows that, at some point, between pressure on insurance companies and congress-people, many/most/all highways will become “automatic-only”. Why would you allow one half-retarded yokel in his mustang screw up the efficiency of the hive-mind traffic flow?

    • 0 avatar
      multicam

      As one of those half-retarded yokels in a Mustang, I do enjoy the freedom to not drive perfectly in unison with all my fellow comrades. I’m afraid autonomous cars would eventually lead to the situation you described. Let us strike all doubt from our hearts and charge headlong into this brave new world!

  • avatar
    DC Bruce

    I think the Volvo truck-car train is a non starter. First off, there’s no way the truck can stop as quickly as a car. So, immediately, the car’s braking performance is degraded to the level of a truck. Secondly, such trains will be more of an obstacle to other traffic than the double trailer rigs that are allowed in a lot of western states in the U.S. Thirdly, all that system does is cede control of a bunch of cars to the guy driving the truck. Doesn’t sound too advanced to me.

    The Google autonomous system sounds more promising to me. The problem will be integrating it into roadways with vehicles driven by humans (trucks and cars). Certainly, an all autonomous series of cars could effectively chain on the highway, and the system would be smart enough to allow others to break in (e.g. merging traffic). I think the real promise of such a system, were it to become ubiquitous, is allowing much higher speeds on freeways without compromising safety.

    But, I don’t see it being economically retrofitted into an existing car.

    • 0 avatar
      Landcrusher

      You raise issues that are non issues. I think your perception of how it works is incorrect. Each car is actually fairly autonomous and apart. Braking distance is maintained and cars can pass through the platoon. That’s why they don’t call it a train.

  • avatar
    el scotto

    People driving on the DC beltway like it was Talledega? It’s not happening. The software would cost thirtyeleventy million dollars. Then each and every vehicle would need a foolproof way to keep humans from tampering with the system. Imagine a six line 327 car pile up. Or a better fool.

  • avatar
    crm114

    I think the roads will be a much happier place for enthusiasts when all the brain-dead sheep are being chauffeured around by computers, rather than being in control themselves.

  • avatar
    bumpy ii

    Thinking longish-term…

    Would you need a driver’s license to “drive” a self-driving car? Would the license have an endorsement to allow driving the “old-fashioned” way?

    • 0 avatar
      sportyaccordy

      This is my only gripe. People are bad enough drivers as is, and I am sure there will be situations where people will have to drive. I would be behind this, as long as it came with some kind of relicensing protocol that required people to demonstrate the could still actually drive.

      The implications are tremendous though. Forget driverless cars- what about driverless buses? Whoever said “so basically we need trains” actually was onto something- carpooling would actually be a lot less stressful + more efficient, etc, and nobody would have to take the wear and tear if it was paid for by the company

      I think it could be huge. I would def love to commute in a driverless car

  • avatar
    wmba

    How would this system avoid potholes? Sonar and radar and lidar, blah, blah, blah. Great, now add a snowstorm and icy roads. Revert to manual control with drivers who no longer know to drive? The system will stop and hundreds will die of frostbite. Will first responders in Chevy Van ambulances and cops in cruisers be in autonomous emergency vehicles? What about older vehicles? What about flat tires, other mechanical problems?

    We can build wonderful new energy efficient homes, but the average home is decades old.

    Let’s bypass all these steps and go straight to the brain in a jar as the human experience. Think of all the problems that could be avoided then.

    This idea is about as likely to happen as everyone owning a flying car. And yes, I’m from Luddite Central. We’re keeping an eye on Google!

  • avatar
    MrWhopee

    I will raise my hat in salute if this can actually work in more challenging/brutal traffic. Most traffic in America are so calm and easy, you know. Most people cooperates, no one cuts you off, infraction from the rules are a minority.

    But there are places where traffic is more brutal, people cuts each other left and right, lanes aren’t clear, no one follows traffic rules, etc. I have never seen demonstrations of this kind of system in the US’ more brutal cities, like Chicago or New York City, in rush hours. We’ll see how it copes then!

    But then, who needs automated driving in those nicer places (where we commonly see such system being tested)? Driving is actually relaxing and enjoyable! It’s a great stress-reliever. It’s in places where driving is akin to hand-to-hand street fighting that this kind of system is most welcome.

    • 0 avatar
      multicam

      Forget New York, think about Rome. Driving in that city is an art form that takes years to master. Traffic laws are a constantly changing social activity with so many variables per second that it makes New York look like a lonely four-way intersection in Nebraska. Tiny streets, randomly parked mopeds and cars, a maze for a grid, and the ever-present swarm of mopeds and pedestrians/cyclists are just a few of the variables the human CPU has to process.

    • 0 avatar
      econobiker

      Some of the issues you list are more of a traffic design issue than of the drivers.

      And the actual overload of the system in NYC (and a gas mileage increase) could be alleviated if say NYC gave all motorcycles and scooters free no-toll entry to the city plus free parking (more than 2 in the space of a standard auto parking space dimension). But then toll revenue would decrease, and government would not like that…

      And do not even get me started on the how, for small local surface streets with low speed intersections, round-a-bouts could help traffic if used in place of the stupid expensive traffic lights now dotting the landscape. Anytime you have to stop and wait for a no car cross street traffic signal gas and time are being wasted. This waste could be mitigated with the round-a-bout…

  • avatar
    econobiker

    Follow the money folks. Insurance companies.

    The insurance companies will love this after all the thorny issues of who is liable for an accident are worked out. Then you will be faced with increased rates if you do NOT use the automatic driving feature on your car.


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