US Government Announces Investment in Autonomous Vehicles
The Obama Administration has made it more likely that in the future, you will be able to perform useful tasks while on your daily commute through rush hour traffic. Imagine texting, eating breakfast, working on those important business graphs, or binge watching your favorite show while navigating the freeway. Such things are theoretically possible with autonomous cars — self-driving vehicles that can locate your destination, navigate road hazards, change lanes, and park, all without the need for drivers to engage the steering wheel or gas and brake pedals.
The President's proposed 2016 budget includes $4 billion for investments in driverless technologies to be spent on everything from product research to supporting infrastructure. Meanwhile, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx announced at this year's North American International Auto Show that the government would team up with industry members and interested parties to create federal guidelines for self-driving cars within six months.
Google Leads the Pack
A 2015 report from Business Insider Intelligence suggested that by 2020, up to 10 million cars will have self-driving features and that fully autonomous cars will debut in 2019. That estimate for fully autonomous cars may be ambitious. Don't expect to be taking a nap in your Nissan or watching a TV show in your Tesla during your rush hour commute anytime soon.
Since the vast majority of autonomous vehicle testing takes place in California, the California Department of Motor Vehicles (CDMV) serves as a useful resource for assessing progress. The recent report provides 14 months worth of data and useful insight into each company's approach and success rate.
Google has logged the most self-driving miles on public roads. At 424,331 miles, no other car manufacturer is even close. Auto parts manufacturer Delphi was a distant second at 16,662. Volkswagen, Daimler (Mercedes-Benz), Nissan, and the electronics company Bosch also provided data to the CDMV's report. Tesla reported no public miles driven, only saying there were no "disengagements" during traveling.
Disengagements, or interventions, are times when the driver has to regain control of the car, or at least thinks that he or she does. Google only reported 341 interventions, or over 1244 miles traveled per necessary intervention. By comparison, Volkswagen had 57 miles per intervention, Delphi had 41, Nissan had 14, and Bosch and Daimler tallied less than 2 miles per intervention. With these numbers, it will take time to build the critical technological trust level that is necessary for mass acceptance.
Trusting a self-driving car on a quiet suburban lane is one thing, but trusting it in freeway traffic or on a snowy mountain road in Colorado is quite another. Realistically, today's anti-lock braking systems and similar programs function better than most drivers would independently in bad weather, but try and keep your hands off the steering wheel when you are approaching a snow-covered downhill curve. The driver intervention rate must be virtually zero to gain full acceptance, because the consequences of failure are catastrophic — and, face it, we all think we are better drivers than we really are.
Infrastructure, Communication, and Perception
The trust factor relies heavily on communication, not only within the car but also with the world around it. Sensors already bring in massive amounts of data to cars, but the real challenge is timely analysis and action based on that analysis. In that regard, self-driving vehicles have a way to go.
Delphi was the only manufacturer to summarize their causes for intervention, and the causes are fairly insightful. Approximately one-quarter each of the interventions were for poor lane markings and traffic light detection — in essence, the sensors have trouble seeing in less than optimal lighting and road maintenance conditions. It is certainly possible for infrastructure to be sufficiently maintained in limited areas but nationwide maintenance cannot possibly keep up. Systems must be able to process unclear conditions successfully and correctly.
Advocates of the technology point to potential improvements in traffic deaths; Secretary Foxx estimated that up to 25,000 deaths could have been prevented with driverless technology last year. Many of these technologies are being incrementally introduced into newer models to take advantage of favorable conditions. General Motors' upcoming "Super Cruise" will combine cruise control with hands-free operation under certain conditions.
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