Handless carriage – The Economist (blog)
IT HAS long been the stuff of science fiction, but autonomous driving is about to steer a lot closer to reality when Google begins testing a fleet of self-driving cars later this year. The move positions Google as one of the leaders in the field, but virtually every big car maker is now working on similar technology. Last year, for instance, Nissan announced it wants to put its first fully autonomous vehicle into production by 2020. Yet most of the incumbents take a more incremental approach than Google.
The technology giant is planning only to produce 100 autonomous prototypes, a quirky little electric vehicles with a range of 100 miles and a top speed of 25mph. From the outside, they look like a cross between a Volkswagen Beetle and a Smart Fortwo microcar. They will feature a soft nose and a flexible windscreen—just in case they hit a pedestrian.
But what sets these vehicles really apart is the lack of controls that have been part of every car produced since the dawn of the horseless carriage. Only a handful of the Google’s prototypes will be equipped with steering wheel and pedals. After that, they will only feature an on/off button and controls allowing the riders to input a destination—by voice, of course. “Seniors can keep their freedom even if they can’t keep their car keys. And drunk and distracted driving could become a thing of the past,” explains Chris Urmson, the head of Google’s autonomous vehicle programme.
Big carmakers agree with the general direction. Andy Palmer, Nissan’s global product chief in America, for instance, is confident that fully-autonomous vehicles will come to market sooner, rather than later, almost certainly within the decade. Yet others, such as Jim Lentz, Toyota’s American boss, are betting that “assisted” driving will be the direction the industry takes, at least in the near to mid-term.
As a result, strategies differ. Nissan, like Google, is planning to go with a fully autonomous vehicle. German carmakers, such as BMW and Mercedes-Benz, are taking a similar approach, as is Detroit-based Cadillac. Toyota, for its part, is one of the manufacturers focused more on offering motorists a helping hand rather than replacing humans completely.
Most of the autonomous vehicles big carmakers are working on—including Nissan’s—will retain conventional controls. Many motorists will want to be able to take charge for an emergency or simply for the pleasure of driving. Regulators will also require such redundancy, for instance in Nevada, the first state to craft regulations for autonomous vehicles. (Google’s Mr Urmson is hoping California will allow fully autonomous prototypes as it will craft regulations of its own later this year.)
It is unlikely that Google and the incumbents will compete head-to-head. The Silicon Valley firm may go it alone—like its neighbour Tesla Motors. But more likely, Google will partner with one or more existing carmaker who would license its self-driving technology. “Our vision is to bring this technology to the world, and we’ll find a way to do it,” says Mr Urmson.
Rinspeed, a Swiss consultancy, recently offered a hint of what is possible with its XchangE concept vehicle at the Geneva Motor Show in March. The front seats swivel 180 degrees to create a rolling living room. And as long as everyone’s comfortable, they might as well be entertained by the show car’s large pop-up flat screen TV. There are also pop-up trays and even an espresso machine. Oh, and should anyone want to actually drive, there’s a foldaway steering wheel.
“So far hardly anyone has taken this to its logical conclusion from the perspective of the driver,” explains Frank Rinderknecht, founder and chairman of Rinspeed. “After all, traveling in a driverless car will no longer require me to stare at the road, but will let me spend my time in a more meaningful way.”
The technology to do all this is almost there—but drivers may not be. Just 12% of Americans wouldn’t be at least a little worried about turning over driving duties to their car, a Harris Poll found in February. More than 50% said they were worried about hackers; 79% questioned whether the necessary gear might fail at some point. Considering the flood of recalls this year, it is no big surprise that motorists and passengers might be more worried than the companies that are rushing to tell the public: “Leave the driving to us.”