The truth about self-driving cars

Regular readers will know I’m rather skeptical about the prospect of self-driving cars (1, 2, 3) and so I listened with interest about what somebody in charge of a car manufacture had to say about them.

He first listed the five degrees of autonomy, with Level 5 – the highest – allowing the human occupant to remove his hands and switch his brain off any time, anywhere. This is what most people think of when they talk about self-driving cars, the ability to go to sleep in the back or be blind drunk leaving the car to take care of everything. At the moment, production cars are fitted with Level 1, which is basically driver assistance. Level 2, which allows the driver to drop their concentration a little, is being introduced slowly.

He then talked about five technical areas which will need to be tackled in order to have Level 5 autonomous cars. I’ll take them each in turn.

1. Computing

Modern cars currently have around 50 black boxes carrying out various functions. In a fully autonomous car, they will likely have a single computer split 5 ways, with the parts carrying out the safety-critical functions kept well separate from the bits that run the entertainment system. Raw computing power is unlikely to be an obstacle to the development of autonomous vehicles.

2. Antennae and Sensors

The number and variety of sensors and antennae an autonomous vehicle will need is mind-boggling, particularly if redundancy is considered and 2-out-of-3 voting required to avoid spurious trips. The antenna on the Google car can be seen in the picture below:

A fully-autonomous car would need about 5 of these, mostly for communication outside the vehicle. It would need multiple 5G connections as well being able to connect via wi-fi and satellite. Sensors will include radar and infra-red cameras, which must be kept clear of dust, dirt, and rain.

3. Decision Making

Here’s where it starts to get complicated. What does the car do with all this information it’s receiving? The software is going to have to come pre-programmed with every situation the car can conceivably encounter so it knows what it’s looking at. Even if we charitably assume self-learning AI will be fitted to the cars, automobile accidents are often such that the occupants, be they human or computer, don’t get a second chance. The sheer size of this task in achieving Level 5 autonomy for cars is unprecedented.

4. GPS Mapping

GPS for civilian use is accurate to around 3-15m, although considerably better when the US military is lobbing missiles through windows and cave entrances. Level 5 autonomous vehicles will need GPS mapping to be accurate to within centimeters. If the car comes with an incredibly accurate GPS map installed in its brain, what happens when the map changes? A new road could be easily updated, but roadworks? Will we rely on the South Pembrokeshire District Council to inform whoever makes the maps in an accurate and timely manner every time they dig up the street?

5. Control and Action

Once a car has figured out where it is and what’s in front of it, what action does it then take? Does it jam on the brakes, swerve, or carry on? Software that could handle this in a normal street environment is not even on the horizon, and probably won’t be for another twenty years at least.

He emphasised that these 5 areas only cover what is required in the car; the infrastructure required to support autonomous cars was an equally gargantuan technological challenge which national or city governments will have to deliver.

Our visitor compared the challenge of Level 5 autonomous cars to landing on the moon, only without the single, dedicated organisation driving it. He didn’t say whether he thought we could replicate the Apollo 11 mission today, but my guess is we wouldn’t stand a chance. For a start, there is a worrying lack of diversity in the picture below:

I asked him whether he thought, as I do, this is all just a pipe-dream and we might never see Level 5 autonomous vehicles. He replied that, in his opinion, the technology will advance while there is an obvious benefit for the additional cost, as was clearly the case for ABS brakes and traction control. So it could well be that we get to around Level 4 autonomy before the costs and effort to reach Level 5 outweigh any benefit.

One interesting thing he said was that the most obvious place to use autonomous vehicles was on motorways, where the environment is much more strictly controlled than on other roads. The trouble is, only around 3-5% of road deaths in Britain occur on motorways, with the bulk taking place in urban areas or on rural roads. This is because on motorways the relative speeds of the cars isn’t too dissimilar, so in a crash cars just tend to get bounced around a bit while all heading in the same general direction. By contrast, accidents on country roads tend to involve cars converging at speed, hitting stationary objects, or leaving the road altogether. Therefore, the easiest and most obvious place to have autonomous cars will not save many lives, which kneecaps one of the main arguments of their proponents.

He also mentioned the legal aspects of autonomous cars. Currently drivers are responsible for accidents, and individual drivers insured. With autonomous cars, it will be the manufacturers which will be responsible, and this will drastically change the legal and insurance landscape in any country which adopts them. He didn’t put this forward as a reason autonomous cars won’t happen, he just mentioned it as another thing to consider. Regarding the technological challenges, he didn’t think there was any chance Level 5 autonomous vehicles will be possible for at least twenty years. My guess is it’ll be a lot longer than that.


62 thoughts on “The truth about self-driving cars

  1. Car share works already in cities across Germany. Mine reckons each share car takes four privately owned vehicles off the road. Exhibit a: I haven’t owned a car myself since 2013.

    Obviously scale up will require a car to person ratio that satisfies peak demand, but you could still drastically cut the number of vehicles, even if everyone still commutes one person per car. Tech will make ride sharing an attractive cost saving option.

    The vomitorium issue is easy as that pool will include an assumption that some cars will be in maintenance/cleaning etc at any time. The companies will work it out and even be able to predict peak vomit times and hire cleaners appropriately.

    Our car share – on the rare occasion I get a vehicle that isn’t fit to use, just call the company and tell them, then find another vehicle.
    Of course, Ryancar will tell you to get stuffed and pay for your vomit comet whether you ride or not. But such problems can be left to the market.

  2. I’ve got a car with some “safety features” which are useful and reassuring, but very constrained in where they try to override my judgement. It’ll whinge at me if it thinks I’ve taken my hands off the wheel (though it’s not actually very good at spotting when I really have), it nags me to take a break, it lets me know if I’m wandering out of my marked lane, it will chirp and bleep and shake the wheel and then brake for me if I’m in “parking mode” and about to reverse into something.

    Overall it’s probably worth having. Usually it just bleeps and warbles if its sensors think “something big enough to worry about moving where you’re reversing into!”. Once or twice in three years it’s actually braked for me, when I hadn’t noticed I was about to slowly reverse into something. (I did once make that mistake in a car without those aids, so I can’t claim I’d never do so and don’t need the help)

    The issue that I find does significantly help is “lane assist” on motorways – because of reasons I find myself routinely commuting from the South Coast to Bedfordshire or Huntingdon on Friday night after a working week and returning after a busy weekend on the Sunday, and having some help in (a) holding my lane, (b) being nagged that “you’re wandering around, stop for coffee” seems worth the few hundred pounds that adding the “safety pack” option cost when I bought the car.

    But, doing that 150-mile trip each way on a weekend or two a month, I really notice how often I end up ignoring my in-car satnav and firing up my phone’s Google Drive which is better at dealing with “the A14 and A1 both have overnight closures tonight, here’s the least awful diversion” and even then you discover parked vehicles, council tree-trimmers, skips and other unexpected additions to quiet country roads.

    Cars able to cruise-control hands-off on motorways and A-roads? I can see that pretty soon. But the more you ask the machine to cope with, the harder it gets, and you hit the “cruise control problem” – take too much away from the human operator and they lose interest and do “other stuff” whether it’s safe to or not.

  3. @William of Ockham: “Remind me; when you dial 911/999/000…”

    The network provided location is extremely broad (being polite) and the Bristol/Cardiff issue is notorious.
    Blue light is moving to a GPS derived location sent over SMS. Nothing to do with us guv.

  4. While I’m not skeptical of self-driving (level 5) cars – that they’ll arrive before I die – I do think the biggest roadblock to their rollout will be that, as Tesla’s showing, you really can’t bring level 3 and 4 to the consumer marketplace safely.

    No matter how reliable it is, it still requires a human being to pay attention – and the average person is simply not capable of doing that without also being in control. Just sitting their with your hands ready to grab the wheel with nothing else to do means you’ll tune out and not be ready when you need to take control. As Tesla’s showing us with their crashes due to these driver’s doing exactly that.

    So its going to be hard to show real-world data that each level is sufficiently safe to justify moving on to the next. I expect that at some point in a few years one of these companies will just say ‘screw it’ and straight up roll out a level 5 vehicle and let the chips fall where they may.

  5. “I really notice how often I end up ignoring my in-car satnav and firing up my phone’s Google Drive ”

    Yeah, in-car electronics are pretty much shite and, worse, can never be upgraded. Sadly a lot of the stuff worth having is tied into also getting the option that gives you a touchscreen that comes with a ton of crap you may not want.

    Or can’t use. I had a BMW 3 series that came with a phone data jack – for iPhones only. No option for a USB or any other type of connector. Utterly useless but I guess people who buy new BMW’s wouldn’t use any other phone brand?

  6. @Tim the Coder,

    “The network provided location is extremely broad (being polite) and the Bristol/Cardiff issue is notorious.
    Blue light is moving to a GPS derived location sent over SMS. Nothing to do with us guv.”

    I was responding to the point being made about mobile phone companies being reticent to allow their technology to be used for critical functions, not accuracy of location.

  7. @the Prole- “I presume there have been remarkably few other incidents, given the media attention that one got.”

    They are fucking killing machines that are fifteen times more deadly than human drivers.

    Other than the deathwish, who the fuck wants to be passenger, not me. I had to get out of my bed at 3am this morning to catch a plane to Sydney, to be met and driven by an english speaking driver to Wollongong, I hate being a passenger, he made so many mistakes. Met the client drongo and sorted things out, another long impatient on my behalf drive back to Sydney with a stop off for a business lunch. The loser that was driving is from Syndet and got lost I intervened and discovered it was the RAC Club at Macquarie St, I gave directions, then had to suffer the guys parking attempts, when I just wanted duck and wine. Great lunch in the setting of the glorious halls of the RCA, and at that point it became poignant for me to know that I am at heart a car guy. Hiccup.

  8. @Bardon,

    Curiously, you become more coherent and make fewer grammatical errors after a good lunch.

    I suspect you intervene less with spellcheck after a bottle of Shiraz.

  9. @Bill – “Curiously, you become more coherent and make fewer grammatical errors after a good lunch.”

    Now that I am safely back in Rome within the luxurious settings and political security of Palacio Bardonici, allow me to acknowledge the unswerving truth of your observations on me and also recognise what a positive influence that you have had on my life.

    In the short time that I have known you, you single handedly and selflessly have taken the time to show me the way of the genteel man, a perspective in life that sets real standards and manners, that once understood an enlightened man can only but see the true meaning of life and by definition what he must aspire to, for this companionship there is no doubt that without your guidance I would surely have been a lesser man than I am now.

    Perhaps the most important life lesson that you imparted on me during your wise and worthy tutelage is that it doesn’t matter how much more cash and continued more cash that I may acquire in relation to say, you, or another lesser being, these such trappings are trivial and will never replace true class.

  10. @William of Ockham,
    My apologies, I should have been clearer.

    Emergency calls are supported by mobile networks because their licence makes it mandatory. They raise no revenue, and each 999 call costs many £, the Emergency Call centres charge for each 999 call delivered to them.
    It’s just a toll for doing business, and everyone else cross-subsidises the cost. Cannon law.

    Part of this 999 call is location, which can be life critical, and as I mentioned, the Network-provided location is low quality being subject to many perturbations. It is mandatory to supply it but only on the quality realistically feasible. The industry is giving up on it, moving to GPS-derived locations provided by the smartphone, unrelated to any mobile radio infrastructure.

    The thought of being obliged to make no changes to any radio infrastructure (without endless delay) because of dependency on precise triangulation for road vehicles safety would make the whole mobile phone thing commercial suicide.

    Mobile phones remain a civilian proposition, at civilian prices and with civilian availability. Sometimes it is broke 🙂 The military need better, and by God, they pay for it.

    In any case, no mapping/location system for cars will cope with obstacles, wild animals, JCBs, etc, so any car needs to be driven by observation to steer round the visibly clear path. A challenge for software I think.

    NB While on the whole civilian/availability topic, ESMCP is more unicorn farming, so that flight of fancy has already hit the concrete pavement of reality. It’s doooomed.

  11. “No matter how reliable it is, it still requires a human being to pay attention – and the average person is simply not capable of doing that without also being in control. Just sitting their with your hands ready to grab the wheel with nothing else to do means you’ll tune out and not be ready when you need to take control. ”

    Thats a very good point. Personally I’d rather be actively driving the car than sat there having to keep a constant eye out for something the computer fails to pick up on and then take over the controls. I think the latter would be more stressful (if done properly) than just driving the thing yourself. And if its not done properly it will of course be less stressful, but more liable to kill you or someone else because you weren’t paying attention enough to over-ride the computer in time when the situation required it.

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