Friday 24 November 2017

Look, no hands! My car is driving itself

Joe Coyle

I'm travelling at 100kmh in the passenger seat of a BMW 5 Series on the German autobahn. There's a man behind the driver's wheel, but his hands are on his lap and his feet are motionless. The car is driving itself.

So much of the talk about tomorrow's motoring world can strike you as a bit pie-in-the-sky.

But this is different. Here we are, being driven by a car. Yes, we're experiencing automated driving here first-hand for the first time in this research prototype vehicle on the autobahn outside Munich.

We've just passed the Allianz Arena, the spaceship stadium home to European champions Bayern Munich, while the man from BMW explains how the technology works. The car, we'll call it Chip, 'sees' the 100kmh speed limit sign by fusing and interpreting the information gathered by a series of on-board radar, laser and ultrasound sensors, as well as some old-fashioned cameras attached to the car. Chip sees the road, vehicles and other objects in the same way.

As our human 'driver' explains all this, Chip begins to change lanes. Moments later, a lorry driven by a pesky human two lanes across ventures a little too close for our Chip's liking, so it changes its mind and continues in our own lane. A minute or so further down the road, the coast is clear and Chip moves smoothly into the middle lane.

But what does it feel like? What kind of e-motions come to the surface when you're putting not only the mechanics of driving a car into the hands of a machine, but the decision-making as well?

The rather disconcerting thing throughout the journey was that I wasn't worried at all. It all feels very safe and natural, and I can't but feel that this is a key part for the future.

There are serious ethical questions, however, and in fairness to those at BMW, they are encouraging us all to debate these. A car can drive itself, but should we allow it?

The case 'for' is compelling. Chip never gets tired at the wheel. It will find the quickest and safest route from A to B. Chip's mind doesn't wander off and its reactions are getting better every year. Let's face it, there may come a time when you and I won't be allowed to drive our own cars because of safety concerns over human error.

The case 'against' also stacks up. Who is responsible if something goes wrong – the owner of the vehicle, the manufacturer, or a third party? Chip isn't very flexible (yet). In the year 2020, a date slated by the industry for the rollout of automated cars, will Chip swerve to avoid another car or pedestrian, or protect those on-board by doing just enough to avoid a crash? Who or what defines what 'just enough' is? Is 'just enough' good enough? What would a human driver do?

We have seen the future, but we sure as hell hope the future can see us.

jcoyle@independent.ie

Irish Independent

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