Driverless vehicles will continue to dominate auto headlines

Thilo Koslowski, vice-president, analyst and founder of Gartner's Automotive Practice, has placed autonomous vehicles at the peak of the hype cycle. Right now, he says, consumers have inflated expectations. Now, we have to reset those expectations. You won't be able to sleep while your car drives you to work for many years. He also promised that self-driving cars won't linger too long in the trough of disillusionment.

He cited a Gartner consumer survey. When asked: ‘Do you want a car that can drive itself?’, 27% were very interested, and 41% said, "maybe".

He reiterated that fully autonomous vehicle will be on the road by 2020, with significant penetration by 2030. "By 2020, 10% of today's vehicle owners in mature markets will give up vehicle ownership for on-demand access," he says.

Autonomy is now a given. You can already see it in action on highways and city streets. So it's very easy to forget that really major problems have yet to be solved. Luckily, we had plenty of sessions to remind us of the challenges that remain.

One of the greatest challenges is the machine-to-human handoff. It's unreasonable to let drivers do other tasks and then expect them to take over quickly in an emergency.

"When you tell people we'll drive for you but you have to supervise the car at all times it's unlikely to be perceived as real customer value," says Jim Mazurek, senior vice-president of automotive sales and business development at Neusoft.

Olaf Preissner, head of UX automotive and innovations at Luxoft, notes: "When systems get more reliable, takeover skills get worse." This is an established problem in commercial aviation, and pilots are required to take training to maintain their skills. Will drivers be willing to do the same?

"The system has to deliver right amount of engagement at right time to keep driver's mind from wandering," Preissner says.

It's not only a human-machine interface (HMI) problem. It's also a people problem – and everyone is different.

"We can design the tech but how do you tune it to deal with the behaviour of individuals?" asked Mazurek.

Now that automakers have firmly planted in everyone's mind – including National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA's) – that autonomous driving will progress through several levels before true driverless driving, experts have started to talk about skipping Level 3.

"Level 3 is the tricky one. You have a thing that encourages you to delegate driving but you can't, because if something happens, it's your fault. Level 2 systems are amazing and will radically improve the commutes of most Americans. We would like to leapfrog from 2 to 4," says Anders Tylman-Mikiewicz, general manager of the Volvo Monitoring & Concept Centre.

Meanwhile, Chris Heiser, CEO of Renovo Motors, says the industry should stop dithering. Autonomy may not be perfect; self-driving cars may still get involved in crashes. Yes, there's a level of risk, he says, but they'll still be better than human drivers.

Roger Lanctot, associate director of the global automotive practice of Strategy Analytics, posited that fully autonomous vehicles, such as the Google cars without steering wheels or pedals, might be best deployed in places like Las Vegas, where automotive and pedestrian congestion are expected to soon exceed capacity. 

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