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Cork Independent


Full car autonomy might never happen

Wednesday, 19th December, 2018 4:56pm

We seem to be careering down an inevitable path towards robotic car driving, with almost every major car maker currently investing billions into developing computer-based systems that can, theoretically, take control of all driving functions.

The vision of sitting back, relaxing, and reading a book while the computer chips drive is now a popular one, and some car makers have even spoken of autonomous cars being so capable that you could send one out to collect your kids from school.

Some car makers, though, are starting to break ranks. Mazda recently revealed that a survey of its customers shows a preference for a human being remaining in control, even if there’s an appreciation of driver aids and safety systems.

Porsche, meanwhile, has stated that it intends to be “the last car maker to sell a car with a steering wheel” as it seeks to reassure its customers that it’s not intending to remove their sources of driving pleasure.

BMW, though, suddenly seems to be casting doubt on the efficacy of an autonomous future altogether. The company’s special representative to the UK government, Ian Robertson, has given a speech to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT, the UK’s equivalent of Ireland’s SIMI) in which he has questioned the very notion of fully autonomous driving. And it’s not the tech, that’s in question, it’s the morals.

“Imagine a scenario where the car has to decide between hitting one person or the other — to choose whether to cause this death or that death,” Robertson said in his address. “What’s it going to do? Access the diary of one and ascertain they are terminally ill and so should be hit? I don’t think that situation will ever be allowed.”

BMW has previously stated that it intends to have cars capable of hands-off driving available by 2021, and has even shown off a Rolls-Royce concept car that dispensed with a steering wheel and other driver controls entirely.

The Munich firm has spoken of its 2021 model being a ‘level 3.5’ autonomous capable car. That would theoretically mean that it’s capable of driving without any driver input, but still needs a human operator to cover some more unusual scenarios.

That is the very gap, the one between level 3 and level 4 autonomy, that many commentators have described as the most dangerous stage of autonomous vehicle development — the one where the machines are almost, but not quite, fully capable of taking over.

For reference, we’re currently at level 2 — where some systems such as radar-guided cruise control and lane departure steering can take partial control, but the driver is still hands-on, and eyes-up.

Robertson seems to doubt that the driver can ever be fully dispensed with.

“If we are working towards a ‘brain off’ scenario, where perhaps we expect travellers to even sit in the back of the car and relax, then that clearly isn’t possible today, despite what some might tell you. Then there is the overarching consideration of the regulators that we need to consider. They know we are in a race to take leadership and that opening up to testing could have significant benefits,” Robertson said.

“But I believe that in the long term, the regulators will step in and set boundaries about how far we can go. It might be to allow it only on motorways, as they are the most controlled environments.”

Robertson’s thoughts have been echoed by the Thatcham organisation, a UK-based vehicle safety research group, which has recently called on the media and pundits to stop referring to driving aid technology as ‘autonomous’ because it’s confusing buyers, and is potentially putting them in danger.

Matthew Avery, Head of Research at Thatcham Research said: “We are starting to see real-life examples of the hazardous situations that occur when motorists expect the car to drive and function on its own.

“Specifically, where the technology is taking ownership of more and more of the driving task, but the motorist may not be sufficiently aware that they are still required to take back control in problematic circumstances.

“Fully automated vehicles that can own the driving task from A to B, with no need for driver involvement whatsoever, won’t be available for many years to come. Until then, drivers remain criminally liable for the safe use of their cars and as such, the capability of current road vehicle technologies must not be oversold.”

Thatcham’s latest research paper has warned that using over-blown names for driver assistance systems — Tesla’s AutoPilot and Nissan’s ProPilot were singled out for criticism — leads drivers to believe that these are the flawless robotic driving systems being discussed in the headlines. They’re not — they are, for the most part, glorified cruise control and lane departure systems which actually still require a high degree of driver supervision and attention.

“It begins with how systems are named and described across carmaker marketing materials and the driver’s handbook,” said Avery. “Names like Autopilot or ProPilot are deeply unhelpful, as they infer the car can do a lot more than it can.

“Absolute clarity is needed, to help drivers understand the when and how these technologies are designed to work and that they should always remain engaged in the driving task.”

James Dalton, director of general insurance policy at the Association of British Insurers, said: “Insurers are major supporters of efforts to get assisted and autonomous vehicles onto the roads. Given the part human error plays in the overwhelming majority of accidents, these technologies have the potential to dramatically improve road safety.

“However, we are a long way from fully autonomous cars which will be able to look after all parts of a journey and in the meantime, it remains crucial that all drivers are alert and ready to take back full control at a moment’s notice. Manufacturers must be responsible in how they describe and name what their vehicles can do, and the insurance industry is ready to hold them to account on this.”

Thatcham used a somewhat chilling test to illustrate the limitations of current driver assistance systems. It showed a Tesla Model S, running on its AutoPilot system, following another car.

When that leading car pulled over to reveal a stationary (dummy) car in the road ahead, the Tesla’s systems couldn’t recognise it in time and the Model S ploughed through the (thankfully fake) car in what would have been an appalling accident in real-life conditions.

“The next three years mark a critical period, as carmakers introduce new systems which appear to manage more and more of the driving task. These are not autonomous systems. Our concern is that many are still in their infancy and are not as robust or as capable as they are declared to be.

“We’ll be testing and evaluating these systems, to give consumers guidance on the limits of their performance. The ambition is to keep people safe and ensure that drivers do not cede more control over their vehicles than the manufacturer intended,” said Avery.

“How carmakers name assisted systems will be a key focus – with any premature inference around automated capabilities being marked down. Automated functions that allow the driver to do other things and let the car do the driving will come, just not yet.”

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