With Tesla’s recent announcement of a new ‘dual motor’ version of its model S electric car that can drive on auto-pilot, and given the thousands of hours of test driving of automobiles with greater or lesser degrees of autonomous capability by various manufacturers in the United States, the question is: how fast is our society moving towards self-driving vehicles?
Tesla’s new model D – a dual motor version of its model S electric car – can be switched into auto-pilot mode, simply by pressing a button. The car has twelve sensors which detect traffic, register traffic signs and gauge road lighting levels. Each sensor has a range of five metres and is set so that it has 360° vision around the vehicle. The model’s performance seems sufficiently impressive for CEO Elon Musk to forecast that within the next five years a Tesla car could be driven on auto-pilot 90% of the time, and that these cars will be on the market at generally affordable prices.
But while Tesla is making significant advances in electric car design and also battery manufacture, and a number of other car manufacturers are developing assisted driving technologies, Google is still way out in front when it comes to self-drive technology. Engineers at Google’s X Lab have been developing ‘connected’ cars for quite some time now and the Mountain View giant is the clear leader in this segment. Google has been carrying out full-scale tests on public roads in California and has announced that since trials began its cars have covered a total of 800,000 kilometres with no accidents.
However, some other traditional big-name automobile manufacturers have also begun testing advanced vehicles on roads in the United States. In January Ford announced a partnership with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Stanford University with a view to addressing some of the longer-term challenges surrounding automated driving. Ford’s Global Manager for Driver Assistance & Active Safety Research, Greg Stevens, points out that “drivers are good at using the cues around them to predict what will happen next, and they know that what you can’t see is often as important as what you can see. Our goal in working with MIT and Stanford is to bring a similar type of intuition to the vehicle,” he explains. Meanwhile Audi is testing an initial version of ‘Piloted Driving’ – a system it calls Traffic Jam Pilot – on the public roads in Tampa, Florida.
Carlos Ghosn, Chairman and CEO of the Renault-Nissan alliance, is predicting that cars able to drive themselves could be on the roads as early as 2018. He stresses however that “the problem isn't technology, it's legislation, and the whole question of responsibility that goes with these cars moving around.” It may for instance be difficult to assign liability for an accident if a software package turns out to be at fault. Nevertheless, several US states have passed or are about to pass legislation making provision for self-driving cars and many experts argue that autonomous cars will one day be much safer than vehicles with people at the wheel. However, calling human capabilities into question in this way has quite a number of serious implications and the changes that are likely to take place in the transition to driverless road vehicles look certain to have a profound effect on our society as a whole.