By Gary Witzenburg, Automotive Senior Writer and Contributing Editor, President of the North American Car, Truck, and Utility of the Year, and NMA Member.
Editor’s Note: HOUR Detroit Magazine has graciously permitted the NMA to publish this piece, which initially appeared in a slightly different version on its pages. Please read Part 1 from last week’s newsletter.
Missions and Issues
“Automated vehicles’ potential to save lives and reduce injuries is rooted in one critical and tragic fact: 94 percent of serious crashes are due to human error,” contends the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). “Automated vehicles have the potential to remove human error from the crash equation, which will help protect drivers and passengers as well as bicyclists and pedestrians.”
Another mission will be to provide much-needed mobility for the aged and disabled, though ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft are already serving many Americans. “Roads filled with automated vehicles could also cooperate to smooth traffic flow and reduce traffic congestion,” NHTSA continues. “With automated vehicles, the time and money spent commuting could be put to better use. In many places across the country, employment or independent living rests on the ability to drive. Automated vehicles could extend that kind of freedom to millions more.”
But major hurdles lie ahead.
To be as safe as envisioned, AVs will need to see, understand, analyze, and react to everything around them through a complex system of sensors, radar, LiDAR (radar-like, using laser light), and visual and thermal cameras.
All that will add a lot of cost.
And how effective will those systems be in darkness and nasty weather? When dirt covers their lenses? When snow blankets lane markers and road edges?
“Inclement weather is a challenge,” says GM engineer Jason Fischer, “We are working with suppliers on advanced cleaning systems that will help us solve those problems.” Ford’s John Rich says, “All varieties of weather are being tested, and there will be a learning curve with capability expansion over time.”
Will AVs be programmed to protect their occupants at the expense of others? Which way will they dodge if they can’t stop to avoid a sudden pedestrian hit when the alternative may be an oncoming vehicle, a tree, a lake, or a cliff? “We have to make these vehicles better than humans,” Rich says, “constantly alert with better reflexes and better ability to avoid an accident. They may never be perfect, but if they are considerably better than humans, we almost have a moral imperative to put them on the road because we will be saving lives.”
And when someone inevitably is hurt or killed despite everyone’s best intentions and preventions, who will be liable? The vehicle’s owner? Its manufacturer? The software programmer? The town or city where the incident occurs? All of the above?
“Initially, the lawyers will sue everyone involved,” says Carla Bailo, CEO of the Center for Automotive Research (CAR) in Ann Arbor. “As these cases are settled and precedent established, it will become more clear. The automakers and others must have the utmost confidence in the safety of these systems.”
And will AVs be rolling roadblocks obeying all (often too slow) posted speed limits while everyone else swarms around them at 5-10 mph faster? Will they hold up traffic waiting for openings at non-stoplight intersections while streams of human-driven vehicles take advantage of their excessive caution?
“The vehicles are programmed to obey the law,” Rich points out. “We won’t be able to speed or do a lot of things you see human drivers doing today.”
So that scenario of Level 5 “Full Automation” for privately owned vehicles looks to be a long way off…if ever. “Level 4 is essentially here now,” CAR’s Bailo points out. “Level 5 is later pending many other non-technical parameters such as regulation, public policy, legal and insurance.”
And no current AV is intended for private ownership.
“They will be able to move goods and people in a controlled environment,” Rich says, “but you will not be able to go out and buy one. They are difficult to manage and will require professional service to run.”
The good news is that Level 2 “Partial Automation” is available today.
Many new vehicles, even at very affordable prices, offer Adaptive Cruise Control (ACC), which adjusts speed to maintain a set gap behind the vehicle ahead, and Lane Keeping Assist (LKA), which keeps your vehicle in its lane; and that combo allows hands-off cruising for a few seconds where road edges and lane markers are clearly visible to their cameras.
Some systems work better than others; you must pay full attention and be ready to take control at any time. The system will tell you when to take the wheel, and it will shut off if you don’t. One of the best we’ve tried is Cadillac’s Super Cruise, available on some models now and expanding to more, which will soon add an auto-lane-change feature. GM says its ultimate Super Cruise vision is hands-off driving capability 95 percent of the time on “enabled” (precisely GPS mapped) roads.
What we envision in the not-too-distant future is a potentially worrisome mix of driverless AVs sharing the roads with a large majority of human-driven cars and trucks. The AVs will be capable of communicating vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) with each other and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2X) to avoid conflicts. Still, they will have to monitor everything around them continually and make assumptions (as alert drivers do) about other vehicles’ expected behavior.
Will you trust a vehicle with no driver (or controls) to shuttle you around, or will you prefer a human-driven Uber, Lyft, or taxi? Or to continue piloting those trips behind your own wheel? If you are not yet AV ready, you may be when your own capabilities someday diminish.
What the Analysts Say
“The development of autonomous vehicles continues to move forward steadily, though several automakers slowed their development in early 2020 and some commercialization targets were delayed. While there remains tremendous promise for the technology to ease congestion and contribute to reducing accidents, getting to the point where they are a fixture in the automotive landscape remains on the horizon. However, in 2021 and 2022, we expect to see deployments increase in limited situations. Waymo, GM, and Ford are among those most aggressive in this space in the US, along with the Aptiv-Hyundai joint venture Motional.”
Stephanie Brinley, principal analyst, Automotive, IHS Markit
“Autonomous technology continues its march from test phase to widely-embraced, mainstream functionality. But the variety of circumstances facing a computer-controlled vehicle have proven far more difficult to address, delaying the 2020 arrival of self-driving cars that many were predicting as recently as 2018. Major obstacles include changing weather conditions and the impact they have on sensors, a standardized, functional communication network between cars (V2V) and infrastructure (V2X), and ensuring security against computer hackers. These hurdles will eventually be overcome, but we’re likely looking at 2025 or later before the average citizen can leverage autonomous vehicle technology on a wide scale. Look for the limited test zones in cities like Austin, Phoenix, and Miami to slowly spread across more metro areas as well as controlled environments, such as college and corporate campuses.”
Karl Brauer, executive analyst, iSeeCars.com
“The industry’s thinking about autonomous vehicles has evolved and focused on commercial fleets [and] delivery vehicles. AVs in the commercial vehicle space are like a laboratory experiment that will allow the opportunity to make sure the technology works and the gathering of data to glean insights about patterns of behavior of the users. The commercial vehicle business is lucrative. Automakers know how many orders they have and thus how many they need to produce versus the individual retail business that is unpredictable.
Michelle Krebs, executive analyst, AutoTrader
“Automakers have very ambitious plans to incorporate autonomous driving features into their vehicles. Most of this is a technology push rather than a consumer pull. Our data show that less than 10 percent of vehicle buyers want a fully autonomous vehicle. About 30 percent would consider some level of autonomy. Today’s ADAS [Advanced Driver Assistance Systems] are the first step that many drivers are experiencing on the road to autonomy. Adaptive cruise control with stop-and-go and lane-centering systems sometimes lets people drive for a short time, hands-free.
When we talk about Level 4 and Level 5 autonomy, the pandemic needs to be factored in. Car sharing, which was a cornerstone of some autonomous plans, looks more problematic now. How does a driver know the vehicle is clean and sanitary?
George Peterson, president, AutoPacific
“Autonomous cars that can drive anywhere and that you can buy at a dealership will not be available this decade. Maybe next decade. Tesla claims otherwise with its Full Self Driving, but it’s up to them to prove it since it’s been delayed multiple times. That said, 2020 is really the year of autonomous vehicles. They’re on the streets and running now. The technology is available, and it works. It’s expensive, but the cost is coming down fast. For now, AVs are relegated to geofenced areas that have been 3D mapped, but those fence posts keep moving. Waymo is covering a 50-square mile area in Phoenix that will soon expand to 100-square miles. For now, AVs make the most sense for fleets. They can run their vehicles almost continuously and amortize the cost of the AV equipment more easily.”
John McElroy, host, AutolineTV
“The best chance is in geo-fenced areas, not on public roads. The infrastructure is nowhere near ready for AVs, which are never going to be 100% safe. There is not enough computer code on the planet to cover all situations.”
Richard Truett, technology and engineering reporter, Automotive News