Sunday 8 December 2019

I'd love to accelerate driverless cars

Fully autonomous cars are still years off
Fully autonomous cars are still years off
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

So we won't now be getting driverless cars in the next three years. What a shame. And what a reprieve for us middle-aged types who guard our driver's seat like Charlton Heston protects his rifle.

Even as autonomous vehicles roam the streets of Phoenix, Arizona, automotive companies have started to push back their timescales.

New Uber boss Dara Khosrowshahi, who has most to gain from fleets of driverless cars becoming available, now says it will be 10 years for "full autonomy" in vehicles to happen.

He's referring to a state where you sit into a car with no steering wheel and no control pedals and let it take you somewhere on a public road.

Up until now, car companies were promising fully autonomous cars by 2021. But it looks like the best we'll have at that stage will be an incremental upgrade on what's already on the road in the form of high-end Audis, Mercedes and Tesla vehicles.

In other words, they will be able to take over on a motorway, park themselves and react autonomously to a variety of hazards. But they won't be technically (or legally) capable of letting you get into the back seat for a spot of email or a snooze.

It's all a bit of a letdown.

Much as I love driving, I can't wait for our brave new future. I yearn for cars to ditch steering wheels.

Why? Because they'll be about 10,000pc safer. Even the grumpiest, Alan Partridgest of Luddites don't contest this likelihood: autonomous vehicles will kill far fewer people than current drivers do.

They won't angrily compete with another car that cut them off. They won't be tempted to answer a text while going through a busy junction, or try to race a changing light.

They won't suffer from a chronic lack of ability, judgement or failing eyesight that's kept from authorities.

And they absolutely won't adjudge themselves to be "fine" after "just the one extra" drink.

The revised industry timeline on driverless cars is down to a mixture of technical and regulatory re-evaluations.

For example, car companies haven't yet started to really tackle issues such as adverse weather, with most of the testing taking place in stable climates such as Southern California (Ford does have a specially built mock 'town' for this purpose in chilly Michigan).

Bluntly speaking, we don't yet know how self-driving cars will really fare in severe blizzards, sandstorms or storm-force winds. We do know, however, that the Lidar systems being used on driverless cars are astonishing adept, with one Toyota engineer remarking that they can "see each flake" when it snows. But these systems are expensive and not yet produced at mass scale.

When they are, what will we see?

The first thing will be a fairly steady reduction in driving test waiting times. Assuming the autonomous cars are roughly the same price as today's diesel or hybrid vehicles, how many people under the age of 25 will still be prioritising a manual-drive exam?

People will argue about the joy that people get from driving. (I am one of those who loves it.) But what they won't have any control over is the huge premium they'll be charged if they want to manually drive.

While insurance firms haven't yet formally modelled any driverless policies, many predict a potentially huge disparity.

Sit in a safe driverless car? That'll be €450 per year, full comprehensive.

Disable the autonomy and steer, accelerate and brake yourself? €2,950 per year.

I'm pulling these figures out of my hat, but any insurance executive I've spoken to in the last year says more or less the same thing. Why would an insurance company offer a human driver - who is far more likely to cause a crash, a dent or something else - the same low insurance rate as a predictable machine?

Insurers are allowed to charge drivers under 25 lots more than those over 35 now. How much greater will the disparity be when a safe, driverless option is turned down by the insurance applicant?

It's possible, of course, that this might become its own distinct cachet. Being seen to manually drive might be the equivalent of driving a Ferrari or an Aston Martin, in that only rich people can afford to do it.

For the rest of us, there won't be much of a choice.

Even here, though, there is some hope that the cost of motoring for the ordinary person might plummet altogether.

If cars are to become autonomous, it is almost certain that an Uber-like organisation will seek to employ your vehicle when you're not using it (overnight, say, or during the daytime hours when you're at work).

You'd obviously be remunerated by the company (which would also cover insurance) for making it available. Suppose this was €200 or €300 per month over the cost of fuel and maintenance: wouldn't that go some way toward paying for the thing in the first place?

And that's if you wanted to be one of the owners in the first place. If our future sees a growing fleet of always-available autonomous cars, why buy one at all? Why not use them as private taxis, probably at half the cost of current taxis?

Such a transition threatens industrial upheaval. On the bad side, existing taxi drivers, bus drivers and truckers are facing very poor long term job prospects in their current trade.

Mechanics and other maintenance workers might fare better, as cars might be used more continuously, thereby needing more attention.

On the other hand, those in favour of driverless cars say that the extra time erstwhile drivers will gain could boost their productivity hugely.

In the meantime, don't believe the car companies that claim your new model is "part-autonomous". If you take your hands off the steering wheel and something happens, you'll be legally responsible, not the vehicle.

More's the pity. The driverless future is a brighter, safer one.

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