They could well be the next big thing, but autonomous (or self-drive) vehicles aren't necessarily floating the boat of UK drivers, if recent research from Continental Tyres is to be believed. it seems that, despite all the 'benefits' of self-driving vehicles, that safety, technology and trust are the big worries, with 60% of those surveyed having doubts about the safety viability.
A breakdown in technology (leading to vehicle breakdown) concerns 51% of the survey, while 40% are simply mistrusting of the whole self-drive concept - with 20% admitting to being scared to let the car 'take over'.
The research was undertaken for Continental Tyres as part of its ‘Vision Zero’ commitment, which aims to "eliminate road accidents through innovative tyre technologies and automotive systems," and Safety Spokesman for the tyre manufacturer, Mark Griffiths, was quick to place Continental tyres at the forefront of the autonomous technological advances.
“With our award-winning summer and winter tyre ranges, safety is of utmost importance at Continental when it comes to any of our products or automotive technologies, and it is clear from this research that UK motorists identify with safety as a significant trust factor.
“There are very exciting times ahead with the advent of automated technology, though with any advance comes concerns. As a leading automotive business we play an important role in educating people about safety, right across the vehicle from our automotive systems to our premium tyre ranges.”
The research was released just as the Consumer Technology Show in Las Vegas came to an end; a show at which autonomous cars were a hot topic with many automotive brands on show - a stark contrast to 2011 where there were none!
Despite the concerns about safety & technology, and the trust issues that exist , not only between vehicle and driver but between manufacturer and driver (especially with regards to 'over-claiming'), the 2,000 people surveyed did express what they consider to be major advantages of driverless vehicles, including:
So, let's take a look at the Pros and Cons of Autonomous driving to see if we can make an informed decision ourselves as to whether the whole concept has any real legs - or wheels!
There has been a lot more written about self-driving cars in the USA where, last week, President Obama announced plans to earmark a whopping $4 billion for autonomous vehicle research right across the country piloting various programmes. Millions of miles have already been driven in America by cars 'on their own' in an effort to improve technology, so is the next step to persuade the public over the pond that autonomy is the way forward?
The Auto Insurance Centre (AIC) took a look at the good and 'bad' side of self-driving cars.
The removal of human error. With many road accidents and incidents the result of human error (81% in the USA according to the AIC), taking into consideration the fact that computers use complicated algorithms to determine appropriate stopping distance, distance from another vehicle and other data, the chances of a collision are reduced dramatically.
The removal of distraction. As a computer cannot actually get 'distracted', the offence of 'Driving without due care and attention' could well be eradicated.
The savings associated with human life. Not only, as a result of the road safety improvements detailed above with self-driving cars, will human lives be saved, but there are also savings associated with insurance costs and healthcare costs (Remember; this is an American insurance company speaking here, where all healthcare costs, but it is still relevant in the UK) with The U.S. Department of Transportation giving a value to each human life of $9.2 million.
Time saving. There is a great deal of time saving to be achieved with self-driving cars, giving the driver an opportunity to do other things whilst the car drives itself. For the business person we are talking the opportunity to work while on the move, have an in-car meeting with no traffic distractions, use the phone to make calls or get involved in media issues, or simply catch up on news and the like via papers or tablets. And, as Benjamin Franklin said, "Time is money."
Platooning. An increase in the number of self-drive cars would also lead to the opportunity for a group of them to participate in automotive platooning, where a large number of cars drive as one with little space in between them. Obviously this is a concept that requires a large number of self-drive cars, but it is believed that it could improve traffic conditions and congestion, reduce commute times during rush hour, and even save fuel. (Imagine a solid mass of cars moving as one in a block - that's platooning.)
Help for Disabled Drivers. Disabled individuals, by using self-drive cars, could find themselves with greater freedom and more mobility.
Reduction of Public Transport Reliance. As populations increase, more and more people are using public transport, which is (in many towns and cities) creaking under the strain. Self-driving cars could take their place.
Faster Journey Times. Negating driver error could lead to speed limits being increased (in certain areas and conditions) with computers in the car taking responsibility for car operations.
Other 'benefits' including freeing up police officers, the negation of a need for a designated driver when out drinking, ease of parking (with the car dropping a driver off and parking itself) and help for elderly drivers too are also mentioned - although there seems to be an awful lot of straw-clutching in the company's autonomy pros.
It does seem that the safety issue is the one that gets pushed most of all by supporters of autonomous vehicles, with many cars and vans (and the like) already containing technology to help avoid accidents; technology such as Lane Departure Warning, Blind Spot Detection, Reversing Cameras, Emergency Brake Assist and Electronic Stability Control. And this can only be a good thing.
Drivers can all drive, some better than others, but it takes 100% concentration when you are on the road to drive safely. So by handing over the reins of the car to a computer with no distractions can only be seen as a good thing - or can it?
Is it really self-drive? The idea that you get into a car that drives itself from the moment you get in is pretty pie-in-the-sky and something from The Jetsons. Operating a self-driving car takes ability on the driver's part to work, and there would need to be some sort of education prior to taking the whole thing on with knowledge required with regards not only to operation, but to safe operation.
Concentration requirements. Even though the car is 'driving', allowing the 'driver' to do other things, sleeping is not one of those things. And neither is drinking or taking drugs. The law regarding '...in charge of a vehicle' will still apply. And there needs to be a high element of concentration in case anything goes wrong with the autonomy side of the car.
Cost. Pure and simple, the cost of implementing the new technology at this moment in time, is high. Currently estimated at around $100,000, the cost of the engineering, power and computer requirements, software, and sensors is way out of the range of the everyday driver. But over time this will decrease...but over how much time?
Are the savings real? In terms of personal time saved, taking into consideration the fact that a driver can do something else whilst in the confines of the self-drive car, this can be accepted. But in terms of journey times, and the aforementioned 'platooning', it would take a lot of self-driving cars to be adopted before these savings can be created, and accidents can and will still happen - mainly involving non-self-drive cars.
Computer Security. As the whole raison d'etre behind autonomous vehicles is computer-led, the chances of hacking are very real. And we all know the problems that can arise when computer systems are hacked. A lot of information will be stored on the hardware, including passwords, and the opportunity for cyber-criminals to get this information is one that they would undoubtedly not pass up.
And imagine the chaos on the roads that could be created with wholesale hacking or computer failure with a host of self-drive cars! Director of research for infotainment and advanced driver assistance systems at the research group IHS Automotive, Egil Juliussen, says that "Electronics systems in cars currently have no or very limited security measures."
The Shock Factor! This is more of an initial problem with driverless cars as both pedestrians and other drivers react to a car being driven by...no one! The likelihood of this causing minor accidents is high, akin to the accidents caused by 'rubbernecking' at accident sites; after all, the sight of a car coming towards you with no visible driver is a little disconcerting to say the least!
The Legal Problems. A self-driving car doesn't completely eliminate the likelihood of a car accident, although it does seem to reduce it. But if there is an accident, who is to blame? The driver isn't actually the driver, or are they? Is the car itself responsible, meaning that the car manufacturer is at fault? Is it the fault of the software company? Maybe, if the accident result is due to software failure thanks to external technological failures, are the people responsible for the external failure at fault? There is no legal precedent for how a case would be handled. In fact, it is a legal minefield; and the only people who would benefit from it are the legal teams.
Technological limitations. I certain weather conditions such as heavy rain or snow, laser sensors are adversely affected, so this would mean that drivers will have a greater part to play in car operations - which is not really self-drive.
And the success of self-driving cars currently relies on accurate mapping systems through GPS, the same as our Sat Navs. This needs to constantly be updated, and is not 100% reliable, as anyone who has been advised to turn down a one-way street or been told by their GPS they were driving on a non-existent street will agree. And would yoou leave the controls of your car to something that is not 100% reliable?
Future Driving Abilities. It may sound a long time off, but if self-driving cars were to become commonplace, and indeed develop further, the question as to whether or not the human race would forget how to actually drive must be raised. The reliance on technology could mean that, in the event of a technology glitch or recall, drivers might be helpless to get around, having been "out of practice" in the driving world for some time. Too scaremongering? Consider how we rely on Sat Navs now rather than reading maps, how we use the Contacts section of our mobile phones rather than our brains to remember numbers, and many other things that were done in the past and have now been replaced by technology.
There are many other queries that need to be answered with the full development of self-driving cars still raising a lot of questions and concerns on behalf of drivers, so it is unlikely that we will be seeing hordes of self-driving cars on our roads in the near future. Self-driving cars may be a part of the future, but if they are successfully deployed across the many roadways around the world, there will need to be much education of drivers and a revolution not just of traffic patterns, but also of the transportation industry as a whole.
In fact, according to a recent article in The Independent, autonomous driving is a way off according to new figures.
The article details results of tests involving the archetypal Google self-drive cars that, in addition to Google’s online simulator that drives over three million virtual miles every single day, drove 424,331 miles in October and November last year.
Over that time period and those miles, humans had to take the controls 13 times because of near-misses, and there were 272 technical issues (covering both hardware and software problems, as well as situations such as temporary road works) that also meant the car relinquished control to a human. before a fully autonomous car can take safely to the roads, whatever the location or conditions.
In the meantime, we will need to drive safely and keep to the UK Road Laws all by ourselves.