SO, do we actually want Automotive Autonomy?

Autonomous cars are gradually lurching closer to being a reality. Pretty soon kind of cars that mortal man can dare to aspire to will soon have an automatic pilot that runs beyond a simple cruise control. But what do you – the folk who will be sharing your roads with robots – really think?
Personally, despite my slightly dystopian outlook a year ago, I’m all for it. So long as I have the choice to drive my car how I like, when I like, if I like, it matters not one jot if it’s endowed with layers of NASA-grade technology. As autonomy reaches Level Three capability and beyond, though, one point intrigues me:
How many drivers will actually use it as it’s intended before it becomes mandatory?

Volvo, Mercedes, VAG and countless others are in a race to bring us the best, cleverest autonomous car technology, even though I can’t remember anybody actually asking them to. I suspect it was Tesla that started it, with their Autopilot system that kind of caught other carmakers napping, and coming from such a young upstart of a company, too.
But what intrigues me the most is that, from where I sit during regular motorway trips, the way people drive seems to be nothing like how an autonomous car typically behaves. A computerised ‘piloted drive’ system will work on logic, physics, fact and probability to make its driving calculations. As far as I’m aware, an autonomous driving system is usually set to obey the prevailing road laws. Although the speed limit can be broken, this can only happen up to a pre-set maximum, and only to match speed safely with the traffic flow.
With human drivers, things take a different complexion. We fall foul of temptation. We’re impatient, and we tend to operate to the parameters of “what we can get away with”. It’s hard to resist blasting past a cluster of slower traffic, and if those motorists are already hovering around the legal limit, you can’t pass them without breaking laws.
Conversely, if your car is part of that 70mph cluster, there’s no reason not to sit back in autonomous mode and let the computer take the strain. In theory, the more cars are travelling under logic control in this predictable, digital fashion, the safer the road will be. But everybody will be moving at the same speed – and some drivers won’t like that at all.

There are people on the road who just aren’t willing to wait patiently in a queue, no matter how quickly that queue is moving. Some people want to get ahead if they think they can get away with it. The only way is to exceed the speed limit and break the law. The only way to break the law will be to disengage autonomous mode. And the only reason to disengage autonomous mode will be to break the law. That’s kind of self-incriminating.
I worry that the gradual take-up of semi-autonomous cars will actually increase the speed differential between the legal and the lawbreakers. While today’s British motorway arteries run thick with cars travelling at between 70 and 90mph and all points in between, the risk is that autonomous traffic will be doing 70 and the lawbreakers will be doing 90 – just to nip past quickly. One mistake at a 20mph speed differential could cause chaos.
If this becomes a problem – if it comes to a point that non-autonomous mode is exclusively used by high-speed lawbreakers, it’s only logical that full autonomous mode eventually becomes mandatory on major roads, to remove that element of human impetuousness and risk. And if that happens on major roads – how long before it becomes the case in town and country? How long before legislation forces manual driving to becomes a minority activity practised by eccentrics, like HAM radio and metal detecting?
If you put aside our primal addiction to the feel of driving, autonomous cars are generally a force for good, and manufacturers are hell-bent on delivering them. And they’ll sell like hotcakes. But I feel it’s going to be very hard for motorists, any motorist, to let go of the wheel completely.
(Images courtesy Jaguar Land Rover, Hyundai and Volvo)

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39 responses to “SO, do we actually want Automotive Autonomy?”

  1. Tiberiuswise Avatar

    I do about 30,000 miles a year for work. Much of it on low traffic highways. The ability to put on auto-pilot while I replied to an email or two would help.

  2. bv911 Avatar

    Heck no!
    -One Who Has Experienced Way Too Many Blue Screens of Death

    1. mdharrell Avatar

      Not a problem. I have a Mac, so its screen of death is instead a soothing grey.

      1. bv911 Avatar

        So the slamming into an abutment or careening into a gully will be a serene experience?
        Hmm, think I’ll still pass…!

      2. bv911 Avatar
        ..maybe I can get it started before I hit the bottom!

      3. crank_case Avatar

        The spinning beach ball will hypnotize you to a calm state.

    2. Kiefmo Avatar

      Such systems can be made sufficiently fault tolerant that uptime would be 99.9999%.
      But it ain’t cheap.

      1. Vairship Avatar

        So you’ll only crash for 31.5 seconds a year. That’s comforting…

  3. Maymar Avatar

    For my sake, I have no trouble with waiting my place in queue, I just hate being beholden to someone else’s erratic changes in speed. If I drive calmly and legal-ish, I get caught in clumps of people who can’t maintain speed, who’ll tap the brakes if they exceed the limit by even 1km/h, who park themselves in the middle lane and do absolutely nothing to accommodate anyone around them. Speeders tend to be a little more consistent and predictable, so I find myself blitzing for the fast lane, and spending as little time around any other car as possible.
    But, having driven one of the new vehicles with radar cruise and lane keeping, I can fully get behind that as a future, and a way to mitigate my road rage. The tech still needs plenty of development, but as long as we don’t get ahead of ourselves (and I have the option to operate select things manually), I don’t fear it.

  4. mdharrell Avatar

    A few people still own horses and know how to ride them or how to drive a cart or wagon with them. Not many. Of those, even fewer use them regularly as a primary mode of transportation. Nobody is allowed to do so on the freeway, nor is it at all practical in many other places where it’s still technically possible. I’m not thrilled with a similar prospect, but I believe that’s where we’re headed.

    1. outback_ute Avatar

      That is a pretty different situation, that horses can’t mix with high-speed traffic, compared to non-autonomous cars.
      I agree with Chris’ main point though that autonomous cars will be like ultra-cautious drivers though, even apart from not exceeding speed limits I expect their response to many unusual/unexpected/potential situations will be to slow down.

      1. mdharrell Avatar

        Horses and automobiles coexisted for quite a few years until their capabilities (and, correspondingly, the public’s general expectations) diverged to too great of an extent. The choice of the new majority became an essentially unavoidable requirement imposed upon what remained of the former majority. I expect the same to happen in this case.

        1. outback_ute Avatar

          Well I meant that freeways came into being well after horses were common for regular transport. Do you think it would be fair to say the point of divergence that made sharing untenable occurred in the 1930s (held back slightly by the Depression), and WW2 acted as a clear demarcation point?
          I still think that for a human driver, autonomous cars would be just another factor on the road to be aware of, and to the reverse, human drivers are just one of many things that autonomous cars have to deal with. If people think that simply removing human drivers would solve all barriers to the complete takeover of autonomous cars they are delusional. I could see that law enforcement would focus much more on the human drivers – not much choice really on the basis that the autonomous cars theoretically won’t be breaking the law (once they get the systems ‘right’ to stop running red lights etc).

          1. mdharrell Avatar

            Those dates are reasonable, with the understanding that the changeover occurred both (a) gradually and incompletely and (b) at noticeably different times and rates from place to place.
            My guess is that the biggest obstacles to coexistence will be the readily perceived benefits from such features as continuous centralized and peer-to-peer communication, resulting in the coordination of movement, and the indefatigable monitoring and evaluation of the surroundings. Done well (and I expect in time all of this will be done not perfectly, but well), these aspects will markedly improve efficiency and safety.
            On the human side, the atrophy and eventual elimination of widespread driving skills will lead to a pessimistic evaluation of the efficacy of such skills claimed by the remaining drivers. The perception of manual driving on public roads will go from normal to eccentric to criminally negligent. Every single collision, injury, and fatality involving the dwindling stock of manual automobiles will be widely publicised as evidence of this.
            Driving will still be acceptable in some circumstances, such as on private grounds or in remote, sparsely populated areas, much as is the case with horses today. I’m not happy with such restrictions, much as a die-hard equestrian would not have been happy a century ago, but that doesn’t change what I think will happen. To reach for another imperfect analogy, smoke ’em if you’ve got ’em, while you still can.

          2. outback_ute Avatar

            Agreed on all points. Mind you I think there is still some way to go before autonomous cars are properly ready; there were some quotes from a Mercedes guy about work needed to include local conditions in Australia into the system, with roads that don’t have lines along the edge being mentioned. What the?!?!?!? Suffice to say there are plenty of roads here that qualify.
            Even the street I live on is wide enough for three cars so if there are two parked cars opposite each other, and an oncoming car I really wonder how an autonomous car would cope.

  5. MrKewl Avatar

    If people can’t understand how this will lead to higher expectations of “productivity” and therefore less amounts of already dwindling personal time, they have no foresight at all.

    1. Rust-MyEnemy Avatar

      Ouch. That the working day could officially start when I power my car up is an appalling prospect.

      1. mdharrell Avatar

        A much gloomier forecast is that your work day had better start the instant your employer’s autonomous transportation pod arrives to retrieve you, if you know what’s good for you.

        1. Rust-MyEnemy Avatar

          In that situation, what we all need is British Leyland to come back and get involved in the autonomous corporate transport industry.

          1. mdharrell Avatar

            Way ahead of you. My current fleet is just as effective as anything likely to come out of a revived BL.

          2. theskitter Avatar

            No need for hysterics.
            It’s only gloomy if your employer can fetch you with a pod that doesn’t require immediate hacking, zip tying, and manual overrides.
            Or maybe that’s the gloomy side of it.
            I can never tell these days.

  6. jeepjeff Avatar

    As a motorcyclist, I’m looking forward to a higher percentage of consistent, attentive drivers on the road.
    One thing I notice on the highways is that even in an area known for fairly aggressive drivers (urban California), most people are unwilling to pass with much of a speed delta. I think the people who would be willing to pass at 90mph are already doing it, and habits won’t change much.

    1. Rust-MyEnemy Avatar

      Interestingly, in all the technology releases I’ve absorbed about autonomous tech, I don’t recall a single reference to whether the behaviour of bikers (filtering etc.) is accounted for.

      1. mdharrell Avatar

        So it really is just like human driving after all.

  7. stigshift Avatar

    I don’t. Neither of my cars even have an automatic. And I don’t trust most drivers as a passenger. But I’d trust almost any driver over no driver. I would never, ever, feel safe in an autonomous vehicle.

    1. wunno sev Avatar
      wunno sev

      i’d hold off on the “never ever” until you’re in an autonomous vehicle.
      Tesla’s Autopilot mode seems to work well – it has a safety record on par with or better than that of human drivers – but that’s on the highway. Uber’s city cars seem to struggle more.

  8. Sjalabais Avatar

    Here’s another “me too” for the regulatory temptation to big-brother everyone and to throw out those “dangerous elements” who drive on their own – or who would like to refuse the Auto Drive Addon Kit (ADAK™) on their 15 year old ride because it’s too expensive. We’re about to crash into a societal model of total surveillance and total connectivity, and the power that comes with it scares me sh!tless. Certain political decisions and slides in Russia, Hungary, Britain, the US etc over the last ten years illustrate that democracy and freedom are nothing to take for granted. If we concentrate the power to know everything at agencies, companies, governments – it’s just too much.
    On the driving part…yeah, for city dwellers and for cities, too, it makes sense. Sometimes, it would also be nice to just go to sleep and cross the country. But for that, you’d need to trust something that will be a) hackable, b) programed by inheritently faulty beings, c) susceptible to electromagnetic or pchysical disturbance. Hm. I struggle sleeping on a bus or train, too…

    1. Guest Avatar

      Good points.

      I could see also this becoming a problem, if law enforcement wanted access to the programing, to, for example, to stop a car in a high speed chase.

      It seems like it would be a logical step for them, but it is also one that seems udderly terrifying to me…

      1. Sjalabais Avatar

        Yeah, there’s no reason to distinguish between a car and a smart phone. And as soon as back doors exist, it will become way easier to access a moving two ton machine remotely than trying to hack it individually.

  9. nanoop Avatar

    When long distance travel and city queuing is done in” trains of cars” why should I buy an expensive car with 9 gears 30speakers and 400+ hp as a daily? A 100hp Golf-like car with thick sound insulation will get me into my spot of the 80mph train easily. Selling me and Mrs Nanoop a GTI will be hard, since I can’t defend the expense. Project car for joy rides, the rest is sober efficiency.

  10. crank_case Avatar

    Manufacturers are hell bent on delivering them, but I’m not convinced we are as near to true, full level 5 autonomy as they make out, or if it’s a goal worth pursuing. Robots can react, but they aren’t that good at assigning meaning to what they see and imagining what might happen around the next corner. Many drivers lack this skill too of course.
    What makes me skeptical is the typical Wired article style bluster about disruptiveness, yet the roots of a lot of the current tech arose out of the DARPA challenges for autonomous military vehicles, which lets face it is probably a more lucrative market in terms of investment to profit than civilian stuff. There’s a big desire to use as little manpower in the battlefield as possible, e.g. autonomous supply trucks limiting soldiers being killed in an ambush. Now maybe this stuff is further along and it’s classified, but I don’t exactly see a lot of fully autonomous vehicles in the battlefield yet. Even most drones still have a remote human operator.
    As long as vehicles aren’t full level 5 (i.e. no need for a steering wheel, can go anywhere in any weather), then there’s no argument for not letting you drive yourself. A lot of regular cars already have autonomous safety features already like rear end/pedestrian collision avoidance, which diminishes the idea that there would be a huge increase in safety somewhat. You can still drive, and they only cut in when really needed.
    However… it seems to me that a world of private autonomous car, still doing the same highway clogging commutes while people check emails is relentless stupidity and a missed opportunity for the tech. I’m sure manufacturers will invest in it, but it doesn’t really achieve much in terms of changing unsustainable commuting patterns. Even if those cars are electric, they still require a lot of energy.
    To me the best use of autonomous tech would be for short range autonomous busses and taxis in urban/suburban areas. It’s easy to map out the area they serve, so you immediately cut down the complexity of what it has to deal with, then you leverage them against existing or improved rail infrastructure (which is more efficient than commuting by car) as a “last leg” solution to extend the reach of such things to people who don’t live that close to a station, the can operate round the clock on routes that would be uneconomic for conventional driven busses. This stuff can be achieved more quickly than level 5 private cars and for more gain. If folks got to work this way and hooned a miata at the weekend, it’s probably still more sustainable and energy efficient than doing a long commute in a Tesla everyday.

  11. Surfer Sandman Avatar
    Surfer Sandman

    I’m all for it. I hate driving anyway. The morons on the road have sucked all of the pleasure out of it. It’s a chore now.

  12. Alff Avatar

    Nope. I don’t wan’t to pay more for insurance that allows me to roll my own.

  13. Fred Talmadge Avatar
    Fred Talmadge

    As one who has just entered my “golden years” I want to keep driving for as long as possible. Anything that will help me will be much appreciated.

  14. mdharrell Avatar

    I assume this was just testing the waters before the highly inflammatory Ford vs. Chevy post that followed a few hours later.

    1. Vairship Avatar

      Do you mean Dorifto truck versus FSO Polonez?

  15. CraigSu Avatar

    I was so leery of using cruise control in my first car that had it (1997 Saab 900 SE) that I didn’t try it for over a year after purchasing the car. Automotive autonomy isn’t something I look forward to but that outlook may change as I get older.

    1. Vairship Avatar

      I have determined that I will stop driving at age 70 (assuming I’ll be in good enough health up ’till then). So they have another quarter of a century or so to figure this autonomous driving thing out…

  16. Luxury Lexus Land-yacht Avatar
    Luxury Lexus Land-yacht

    Many, many of us do not.
    I have more than a couple of systems in the new-to-me ’08 Lexus LS 460 L which are autonomous, and they bug the living shite out of me.
    Wipers are first on the list. The first time I used them, I put them on the long-as-possible delay setting. Then the car next to me clipped a puddle (we’re on the freeway) splashing my front windscreen.
    The wipers, without me touching them, went into hyperdrive, then stayed on fast for a solid minute. I turned them off, turned them back on long delay, and all was fine…for about 30 seconds…then back to hyper sweep. This time, presumably, because of road mist.
    Turns out, there’s an automatic wiper speed function which cannot be disabled unless you either pull the fuse, disconnect a connector somewhere, or hack the car’s various computers.
    I choose #3, going in there, tomorrow.
    That, and the 2005 Cadillac STS I had prior to this required a cold boot every 7-11 months. Disconnect the positive, touch the negative, reconnect the positive, try to remember all the tweaks you made to various things, last year. Hey, but at least the nav and stereo work, again!