Rethinking Driving  

01/02/2017

Is self-drive technology really following the right roadmap? By Andy Pemberton

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The US government has signaled its backing for self-drive cars. But Silicon Valley has slipped behind in the race for self-driving technology, so who is in pole position now? Could it really be... Volvo? And how long is it until human-controlled vehicles get consigned to museums?

“Do you know what the most unreliable component of any vehicle is?” asks William Messner, professor of mechanical engineering at Tufts University. “It’s the driver. The driver is the killer. Hardware failure is very rarely the cause of car accidents. It’s drunk drivers, inattentive drivers, texting drivers.”

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In September and December 2016 two UK truck drivers were found guilty of causing death by phoning, texting and using social media while driving.

The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration estimated that 94 per cent of the more than 35,000 US traffic deaths in 2015 were due to the driver.

Drivers can be expensive in other ways too. In the first half of 2016 Uber lost $1.27billion, mostly because of payments to drivers. Uber realised they needed to come up with a plan to get rid of this overhead, before a competitor beat them to it. That’s why they’ve just announced that they are opening a new Artificial Intelligence research lab dedicated to exploring the frontiers of machine learning – especially for vehicles.

At the same time driving is going out of fashion. As baby boomers age, they are driving less, while millennials, who can connect to one another via their smartphones, are skipping connecting via automobiles altogether. In fact, in the US the percentage of people with a driver’s license decreased between 2011 and 2014, across all age groups.

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At the same time, advances in technology mean that we can now have cars as smart as our phones.

In December 2016 Apple sent a letter to US transportation authorities, saying the company was “investing heavily in the study of machine learning and automation, and is excited about the potential of automated systems in many areas, including transportation.” It was the first time they had publicly admitted their interest in the sector.

Volkswagen announced that it is creating a new ride-hailing division called MOIA, and BMW said that it would start testing autonomous taxis in Munich in 2017. Tesla Motors, Audi, Mercedes-Benz, Volvo, and General Motors are also getting into the act. Japan's Nissan aims to build its first mass-market autonomous car at its north of England facility in Sunderland, Britain's biggest single car plant.

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So who is likely to get there first?
Not Silicon Valley, says Siraj Ahmed Shaih, reader in Cyber Security at Coventry University.

“Existing car manufacturers understand the product much better than the tech companies,” he says.

He points to the technological challenge of effectively integrating sensing, communication and autonomous technology to deliver a genuinely safe vehicle.

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“That requires system testing of a kind tech companies such as Apple and Google are simply not used to,” he says.

If something goes wrong with a car someone could die. Existing car manufacturers are used to that kind of legal burden and moral responsibility – look at the major product recalls that take place after a software glitch. This is foreign territory to a company such as Apple.

Indeed, when you consider the barriers to developing autonomous cars – updating national infrastructure, developing full broadband connectivity, a review of how insurance works, ethical considerations in case of accidents- it’s easy to imagine that autonomous cars will never get out of the garage.

In the near term, says Siraj Ahmed Shaih, it is certainly unrealistic to imagine completely self-driving cars. A better analogy for autonomous vehicles is the autopilot employed in the aviation industry. The plane you are travelling on may be flying itself, but two pilots sit in the cockpit in case something goes wrong.

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“Imagine driving to Scotland on motorways that have sensors and transmitters that allow you to be hands-off most of the way. Once you leave the motorway, you would have to take over the driving again,” he says

That would not only make driving easier it could make policing easier too.

“Eighty-five per cent of police work is linked to traffic,“ says Professor Jay Zagorsky, economist and research scientist at The Ohio State University. “If we eliminate that, we can eliminate a lot of police too.”

But the best argument for autonomous vehicles is that proposed by Volvo: a future of “zero fatalities.”

“That is a very beautiful, very simple, well aligned message,” says Siraj Ahmed Shaih. “Don’t you think?”

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