The NMA Foundation presents The Car of the Future weekly feature:
Pedestrians could well be the Downfall of Driverless Cars
Here is a possible scenario: Suburbanites who are driven to work in a driverless car disembark at the edge of the city instead of their actual destination. The reason: Faster to walk than to ride.
In this future, pedestrians now rule the city since they know driverless cars will stop every single time a pedestrian walks out in front of them. The only impediment for a pedestrian is the police who will ticket a pedestrian on site if they jaywalk or cross against the light.
According to Adam Millard-Ball, pedestrian and driver behavior are currently shaped by local social norms. Driverless cars though will always act predictably and local social norms are irrelevant. Driverless cars will also be programmed not to hurt people. Pedestrians would indeed have the psychological upper hand and be free to take advantage of the driverless car. The slower time (and the continuous stop and go) incurred by the passenger inside the driverless car would perhaps outweigh the benefits of a passenger lifestyle.
“Edge cases” will also be a problem. In July, the software simulator company Cognata released an edge case for a driverless car which encountered the back of van with a realistic screen printed photo of three bicyclists riding ahead. The camera had been fooled into thinking that these were real cyclists.
Cognata CEO Danny Atsmon said that most driverless cars could overcome these edge cases through the use of different types of sensing. He explains: “Lidar cannot sense glass, radar senses mainly metal and the camera can be fooled by images that look real. Each of the sensors used in autonomous driving comes to solve another part of the sensing challenge.”
Critics argue that LIDAR is an essential element because it works well in low light and glare and can provide more detailed data than radar or ultrasound (which is what Tesla uses instead of LIDAR). But as Atsmon points out, LIDAR still cannot tell the difference between a red, yellow or green traffic light.
Another challenge: Low-end LIDAR devices may not deliver the quality of data needed for driving highway speeds. Here is why:
If a driver travels 70 mph and spots an object 60 meters (197 feet) away, that driver only has two seconds to react even though at that speed it can take 100 meters (329 feet) to slow to a stop.
A better range for a driverless car is 200 meters (656 feet). Currently the lowest end LIDAR sensor costs $8,000 which is still too expensive for a normal car owner to afford. Many sensor makers are now building new kinds of solid-state LIDAR devices which are electronic instead of mechanical. The laser beam is steered by an array of tiny antennas. But will these devices have the fidelity required to operate safely and reliably at highway speeds?
Graeme Smith, chief executive of Oxbotica said that he thinks that a trade-off between data quality and affordability might delay high-speed driverless cars on the road.
A number of automakers have already claimed that they can put a driverless car on the road by 2021. They might be able to do it in cities where speed limits are low and have already seen extensive mapping. Driverless cars for highway use though still may take some time until the technology can catch up to reality.
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