Bumps on the road: Why driverless cars are further off than we think

This past January, a Tesla Model S, travelling in Autopilot mode, slammed into the back of a stopped firetruck on a freeway in Los Angeles. Amazingly, no one was hurt.  But the crash highlighted for many that for all the hype in recent years about how self-driving vehicles are going to revolutionize driving, there are still lots of problems left to figure out.

To hear automakers tell it, automated vehicle technology is advancing so quickly, it’s only a matter of years before we can all begin to sit back and let computers, radars and cameras take the wheel.

Yet plenty of others are not so confident that the self-driving era is upon us.  So what will it take before self-driving vehicles hit our streets en masse and what will be the hurdles along the road? Here are just a few:

1. Overall reliability

Sebastian Fischmeister, the executive director of the University of Waterloo’s Centre for Automotive Research and an associate professor of computer engineering, says while automated vehicles have been taught how to handle roads, highways, and traffic signals, they are still lacking dependability when it comes to an element of the road that’s much more unpredictable: humans.

2. Cost

As with all new technologies, the first products off the assembly line are going to be hugely expensive.  The key technology currently in most autonomous vehicles is called Lidar, or Light Detection and Ranging technology. The system involved dozens of rotating lasers that sit in a hub on the roof of the vehicle and emit multiple short pulses of light. The systems’ computers then measure the return time of those pulses to create a virtual 3-D map of the vehicle’s surroundings.  While dozens of companies are refining Lidar for automated vehicles, the most refined systems being tested at the moment cost more than the vehicles themselves – in the range of US$70,000. Scaled-back versions in the $4,000 range have been unveiled, but it’s unclear whether those would create images detailed enough for city driving.

3. Weather

At the moment, most automated vehicles are being tested in favourable driving conditions, on dry roads and during sunlight. But the vehicles have yet to really be put through their paces to see if they can handle the worst road and weather scenarios, such as a nighttime drive in a snowstorm on a road covered in ice.  “In a blizzard where snow is basically coming straight at the car, the vehicle’s sensors can’t see that,” says Fischmeister. “…The last thing you would want is for the car to just suddenly stop when it can’t find its way anymore, leaving passengers essentially trapped.”

And what about durability in less-than-ideal weather? Will the cameras and radar sensors on automated vehicles freeze up during extreme cold, or overheat during heat waves?

4. Hacking

What makes autonomous cars so revolutionary — that computers do all the work and control everything — is also what could make them so dangerous.  Fischmeister notes that if someone wants to sabotage your current vehicle, they have to physically approach it and manipulate it. But once that vehicle connects to another, or receives map and traffic information from “the cloud,” it will become open to hacking.

5. Consumer acceptance

Getting consumers to actually trust driverless vehicles could be one of the toughest hurdles for automakers to cross.  But though the numbers of skittish consumers are falling, most of us still feel unsafe about a vehicle in which a human could not take over the wheel.  The irony, of course, is that computer-driven vehicles with cameras and sensors all around it will almost surely be safer than human-driven ones. Though the vast majority drivers think they are excellent drivers, the fact remains that more than 90 per cent of crashes are caused by human error, according to the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.



Godsmark knows there will be bumps on the road to fully automated highways and streets. There have already been accidents that have made headlines and there will likely continue to be more, particularly as automated and human-driven vehicles learn to share the road.“These things will crash,” he concedes. “The hope is they will crash less often and when they do, it will be less severe.”

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