Autonomous cars: A high-tech utopian dream

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Drivers not yet ready to give up the wheel

TechTalk_395362852It’s difficult to see, read or listen to almost any kind of media report these days without encountering some reference to autonomous vehicles — typically, how wonderful they will be, all the problems they will solve, and who will get them to market first.

What’s missing from those reports, most of which willingly and massively overlook the realities involved in implementing such technologies, is the answer to one important question: “Why?”

The answer to that question clearly is not “market demand.”

Is your showroom being besieged by customers wanting cars they don’t have to drive by themselves? Perhaps can’t even drive by themselves?

Have you had any such customers, beyond some who might simply have discussed the concept in passing?

As is the case for fully electric vehicles, the push for autonomous vehicles is coming from the top down, not the bottom up.

There are some good reasons for that push, the biggest being potential safety benefits. If all vehicles ultimately are autonomous and all road systems are designed and built to accommodate them, then there is real potential to eliminate crashes.

But such a scenario is a utopian dream that could only be realized if starting from scratch. In effect, it would be just another form of mass transit system, employing personal, vehicles on individual routes.

The reality is if and when autonomous vehicles do arrive, they will have to adapt to existing road networks and environments, and that is a much greater challenge.

A bigger challenge may be convincing customers to buy them. They’re still science fiction at this point.

According to a 2015 survey of 1,000 Americans by NerdWallet.com, only  three per cent would consider buying an autonomous vehicle right now. About 21 per cent said they might consider doing so after the vehicles had been on the market for three or four years. But 28 per cent said they would never consider one.

Not surprisingly, older drivers were less enthusiastic about the prospect of self-driving cars than younger drivers. Among those aged 60 or older, 44 per cent said they found nothing appealing about driverless cars, while that number dropped to 26 per cent for those 18 to 29 — still a significant number.

Another concern was for the sheer joy of driving, with 44 per cent of men worried driverless cars would take the fun out of driving — although only 23 per cent of women felt that way.

More surprisingly, the greatest concern expressed about autonomous cars was safety — their primary raison d’etre. Of all respondents, 46 per cent — 37 per cent of men and 55 per cent of women — felt they would not be safe. And only six per cent of those surveyed would put a child in a driverless car alone to go to school or a friend’s house.

In another survey of 2,000 respondents by CarInsurance.com, 64 per cent felt that computers were not capable of the same quality of decision-making that human drivers exhibit.

It’s a huge hurdle to overcome.

That perceived problem is not helped by recent surges in customer dissatisfaction with both the performance and reliability of software systems in vehicles.

Problems with software-based audio, communication, entertainment and navigation systems were the cause of a three per cent year-over-year decline in overall vehicle dependability in J.D. Power’s 2016 U.S. Vehicle Dependability Study. They are now the most problematic area on most vehicles, according to that study.

The bottom line is there seems to be little enthusiasm among customers for driverless vehicles, or even those with fully autonomous capabilities. But the same cannot be said for semi-autonomous vehicles with technologies that help them drive more safely.

While consumers are not yet ready to embrace a driverless world, they are interested in the safety technologies that are paving the way to that eventuality, according to the NerdWallet study.

Blind-spot detection was by far the most popular new technology, with 42 per cent citing it as the most appealing feature of semi-autonomous cars, followed by automatic emergency braking (AEB) to prevent crashes, favoured by 30 per cent. A voluntary agreement by 20 of the world’s major automakers will make AEB standard on all new cars sold in North America by September 1, 2022.

Other features, such as adaptive cruise control and lane departure warning and correction, are also finding increased levels of acceptance and popularity.

Following that path of evolution in logical sequence from where we are now to increasing levels of autonomy that will become not just accepted but demanded by customers is the way the industry has always worked. It still does.

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