Self-driving cars

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Google Car
The latest autonomous car from Google has no steering wheel, no brakes and no gas pedal and is limited to 25 MPH. It may tool around a warmweather urban campus just fine, but 24/7 operations in the real world—where there’s ice, snow, fog, potholes, gravel, construction zones, motorcycles and (oh, no!) human drivers—are another story entirely. Google

Some years ago, thanks to a loss in her eyesight, my wife had to give up her beloved Toyota Camry and become the passenger-in-chief. Ever since, she’s wanted an “autonomous vehicle,” a car that can take her somewhere entirely on its own. So when the latest version of Google’s experimental self-guided car made the news in late May—no steering wheel! no brakes! no gas pedal!—she was ready to put down a deposit.

Hey, not so fast. Coincidentally, in late May, the New England Motor Press Association held its annual technology conference at MIT, when automotive professionals gather to discuss a hot issue. This time it was “Engineering Safer Drivers—Technology, cars and minimizing the impacts of age, inexperience and distraction.”

This is nothing new. In the 1940s, Massachusetts wanted to ban automobile radios because people were singing in their cars. Today, however, distracted driving is a huge and growing problem, and it’s not just applying lipstick or eating a burger while behind the wheel.

More and more infotainment floods into our automobiles wirelessly, and vehicles are getting much more complicated as they interact with each other and with us.

The “Multimedia” section in the owner’s manual of this week’s car is 97 pages long; and yesterday one of its safety alerts, meant to rescue me if I’m distracted, instead scared the hell out of me when it went off. (I was paying attention, too.)

Since one way to make driving really safe would be to remove the loose nut holding the wheel (as we used to say), nearly everyone at the MIT meeting talked about self-guided cars that don’t need a driver. My wife, however, wasn’t pleased with the news.

On the tech front, there is real progress. One speaker was Jeff Ruel from Autoliv, a Swedish-American maker of safety systems. Autoliv works with 100 car brands in 89 countries, and reckons that its devices save 30,000 lives and prevent 300,000 injuries every year. Ruel told the audience, “We’re working on infrared vision systems that see better than the human eye in fog, smoke and darkness. We’re monitoring drivers’ eyelid-closure times and gaze direction. We already have systems to start braking for the driver, and the next frontier will be steering systems that seek a safe place to aim the car.”

This kind of hardware is often linked to a GPU, a graphics processing unit, in a dashboard screen. Danny Shapiro, from NVIDIA, pointed out that while a home computer might have four central processing units, or cores, his company’s automotive GPU has 2,800 cores and can be updated overnight, in the car. A system like this can handle input from more and more cameras and sensors in real time, but—Shapiro pointed out—there’s still a long way to go before autonomous vehicles become affordable. “Most self-driving cars have a trunk filled with PCs. The costs and energy consumption just aren’t practical.”

And then Dr. Bryan Reimer, from MIT’s AgeLab, threw more cold water on my wife’s hopes: “The law of probability says it’s 100 percent certain that someone is going to walk in front of one of these autonomous test cars, or one of these cars is going to kill someone. That’s going to set off a chain-of-custody situation. Who is responsible—the engineer, the manufacturer, the driver? It’ll be an ugly legal problem and an interesting area of law where there’s a lot of money to be made.”

In other words, even if the world’s governments can agree on regulations and frequency bandwidth for autonomous cars, the insurance companies may well have the last word. A truly fail-safe robotic car would theoretically be easy and cheap to insure, but messy reality keeps getting in the way.

A Googlemobile that’s competent in urban California will have a nasty time of it in a region that features rain, snow, ice, fog and 100-degree spans in temperature, not to say abyssal potholes and roads that may not even be paved, much less neatly delineated with white stripes. Unfortunately, it seems my wife is going to remain passenger-in-chief for some time yet.

Normal service will resume next week with a report on Hyundai’s brilliant second-generation Genesis sedan.

—Silvio Calabi