Saturday, 2 July 2016

Will our cars soon drive themselves? Volvo is to test driverless vehicles . . .


Will our cars soon drive themselves? Volvo is to test driverless vehicles

WHEN the Department for Transport published a major report on the future of driverless cars a year ago, it pointed out that the UK had some of the “most challenging and diverse traffic, road and weather conditions in Europe”.

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Volvo has chosen London as a testing ground for its driverless car

It added: “This makes the UK the ideal centre for testing and developing these technologies.”

Yet more wishful thinking from politicians you might have thought, but this week Volvo announced that it had chosen the mean streets of London for a major test of its driverless car technology. 

The Swedish car giant is to handpick 100 British families, issue each of them with one of its XC90 sports utility vehicles and monitor them for a year as they hand control of their vehicle to its onboard computer whenever they take to a motorway or dual carriageway. 

The idea of the driverless car is incredibly attractive. Festooned with sensors including cameras, radar and something called LiDAR, which sends out light pulses that are bounced back from surrounding objects, they promise a future in which drivers can put their feet up and do the crossword on the way to work. 

Accident rates would fall, and so would insurance premiums following the removal of the element of human error, and there would be no need to worry about drink-driving because however drunk the owner was the computer in control would remain sober. 

In this brave new world the only people with anything to worry about would be the likes of classic car owners who delight in the act of driving. In all likelihood their premiums would spiral upwards. 

Google have joined the driverless car market despite not having a motoring background

However, a driverless utopia in which cars are made without steering wheels, gearsticks and accelerator pedals is some way off. 

Developing a car that can shoulder the entire burden of driving is crucial to safety

Chris Urmson
“Fully autonomous driverless cars in vast numbers will not be around for some time so drivers shouldn’t get too excited about drinking or texting behind the wheel any time soon,” says Edmund King, president of the AA and visiting professor of transport at Newcastle University. 

Daily Express motoring editor Nat Barnes reckons a driverless road network could be as long as 30 to 40 years away. 

While we may have already developed many of the necessary technological tools – such as intelligent cruise control, lane assist, autonomous emergency braking and remote-controlled parking – many issues remain.

Prime among these are the quality of the driving environment and the ability of the car’s “multidomain controller” to match the many and varied judgments made by what has been described as the world’s most complex computer: the human brain. 

Take infrastructure for example. Prototype autonomous cars already perform well on motorways with their freshly painted traffic markings and lack of corners but how will they cope with faded stop lines on country roads or blind bends? 

When it comes to decision-making, more thorny issues present themselves. Humans can immediately differentiate between a squirrel, a dog or a child in their path and react accordingly. 

But which computer is equipped to make a moral judgment over whether to swerve and risk a collision with an oncoming truck or plough on regardless on the basis that one dead rodent is no match for the loss of a human life? 

As Barnes says: “It is a minefield.” In response to such complications the car manufacturers have worked out a complex hierarchy of “driverless” categories, ranging from Level 1, where a driver does everything, to a fully autonomous Level 4 vehicle that needs no human intervention whatsoever. 

The many and varied players in this field are aiming for different degrees of sophistication depending on their ambition, optimism or realism. 

Ford is shooting for the moon according to its CEO Mark Fields, but with some qualifications: “A Level 4 vehicle is where the passenger does not have to take control of the vehicle but it is a vehicle that’s in a pre-defined area, that’s been 3D mapped and what we call geo-fenced.” 

He faces competition from Google, which may not have a background in motor manufacturing but clearly believes it has an edge on the technological front.

“Developing a car that can shoulder the entire burden of driving is crucial to safety,” the director of Google’s driverless-car programme Chris Urmson told a US Senate committee last month. 

“Human drivers can’t always be trusted to dip in and out of the task of driving when the car is encouraging them to sit back and relax.” 

Google reached this conclusion in 2012 after asking volunteers to test its driverless cars. The testers agreed to watch the road at all times and be ready to retake control if needed but Google’s in-car filming revealed that the technology lulled many of the drivers into what it termed “silly behaviour”.

Google has already conducted a number of tests with passengers in autonomous driverless cars

One volunteer even turned around to search for his laptop in the back seat while travelling at 65mph. From that day onward Google adopted Level 4. 

In so doing, it has widened the market for the machine it eventually produces to include elderly, blind and disabled people who can’t operate a vehicle. 

Only last week it was revealed that Apple had hired British engineer Chris Porritt, who made his name at Aston Martin before joining Tesla in 2013, as vice president of vehicle engineering. 

He is expected to become a key player in Apple’s car-focused Project Titan. It remains to be seen how successful the likes of Google and Apple will be in their foray into a very different market. 

As Barnes says: “People won’t buy a car from a company because they like its phone, laptop or search engine.

And by the time the tech giants get round to producing cars they’re unlikely to be more technologically advanced than BMW, Mercedes or any other motor manufacturer.” 

‘Luxury In Motion’ concept car from Mercedes has four seats that can swivel to face each other

All the signs are that he is right. Ford has already set up a new technology business in Silicon Valley’s Palo Alto to work on autonomous cars and is teaming up with technology companies to see how the “internet of things” changes how people interact with their vehicles. 

Meanwhile, Mercedes completed a test in 2013 that saw one of its S-class limousines travel 62 miles through Germany without any input from its “driver”. 

Apart from negotiating 155 traffic lights and 18 roundabouts, the autonomous limo merged into other traffic 24 times. 

It has also developed a “Luxury In Motion” concept car fitted with stylish wood, polished alloy and white leather. But it is the sight of two sets of seats facing each other that brings home the driverless concept.

The steering wheel retracts into the dashboard and the two front seats can swivel 180 degrees to allow four passengers to interact face to face. 

It is certainly an inspirational vision of a future that could be closer than we think. 

Last week US Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said: “This technology is coming. Ready or not, it is coming."

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