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.
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.