Why aren’t we all riding in self-driving cars by now?
In 2015, the rate of development in the autonomous car world seemed incredible.
Some analysts predicted there would be ten million self-driving cars on the road by 2020, while others suggested we would all become permanent back-seat drivers.
Addison Lee claimed it would get self- driving taxis into London by 2021 but it hasn’t happened – travelling from point A to point B still requires someone at the wheel.
So why haven’t we seen these innovations happen? What’s gone wrong?
Getting a car to brake and accelerate automatically behind other vehicles, follow lane markings and stick to the speed limit – functions collectively known as level 2 autonomy – is pretty easy.
There are plenty of cars that do it. Tesla’s autopilot system and Nissan’s pro-pilot tech in the new Qashqai are two such examples – but both require a driver in case things go awry.
Level 3 autonomy – where the driver can watch a movie or send a text – is far more complicated because while it’s easy to teach a machine the basic rules of the road, it’s exceptionally difficult for artificial intelligence to be taught the nuances required to drive safely.
For instance, how do you teach a car when to pull out on a roundabout that already has cars waiting at every exit?
Should it apply more caution if it sees a child behaving erratically on a pavement? Should it even look at the pavement? How does it know whether an object moving across its path is a harmless carrier bag or a dog?
How does a self-driving car reliably understand what’s happening around it if its sensors are obscured by rain, bright sunlight, dirt or snow?
The stakes are high, as getting it right or wrong could mean the difference between life and death.
Levels of autonomy and what they mean
No autonomous features. Most cars on the road today operate at this level.
These vehicles can do one task autonomously such as braking, lane-keeping or adaptive cruise control. Drivers must be alert.
These vehicles are capable of handling multiple tasks such as keeping in the correct lane and braking. These vehicles need a driver to intervene.
At this level, cars are able to drive from point A to point B if certain conditions are met. In the case of an emergency, drivers are expected to take control of the car.
These vehicles are almost completely autonomous and don’t require human intervention. However, they are restricted by location, speed and weather. Drivers are only occasionally expected to take control.
This is a fully self-driving car that can travel from point A to point B regardless of weather or speed. These vehicles don’t need a driver at the wheel and can operate totally independently.
It would take a very brave, or perhaps foolish, company to hand over a half-baked self-driving system to its customers knowing the limitations of the technology. It would take a foolish government to allow it too. And so outside of specific trials, self-driving cars aren’t yet allowed on our roads.
Even if a manufacturer did think its cars were ready to drive themselves unsupervised, Joe Public wouldn’t legally be able to go on a journey without being in full control of the vehicle at all times because level 3 autonomy is currently illegal in most places.
That said, the British government is developing legislation to allow level 3 self-driving cars this year.
It is hoped this will allow cars with automated lane keep assist (ALKS) to drive independently, albeit only with someone in the driver’s seat, on motorways and only at speeds of up to 37mph – reserving its use only for congested sections of motorway.
Whether this latest step actually happens, though, remains to be seen.
Can you trust self-driving cars?
The government’s desire to usher in level 3 self-driving cars this year is exciting. Under a new ruling, an autonomous car would be able to drive at up to 37mph on a motorway – but would we be able to trust them?
Some would argue it’s only usable in a small number of situations and
is therefore nearly useless for the majority of drivers.
There are also plenty of other potential shortcomings including the inability of level 3 cars to recognise smart motorway lane closures, crash debris or pedestrians in good time.
While there are certainly some cases where level 3 autonomy might prove useful, level 4 autonomy is surely a more important step and one that more people would be able to trust. But that, unfortunately, is still some way off.
In association with Cazoo.