I’m amazed by the number of people who ask my opinion about self-driving cars. Even friends and neighbours who have little or no interest in cars or driving often bring up the subject of autonomous cars. With the question, “When are they coming?” being asked pretty early in the conversation.
Self-driving cars seem to be the dream of those who regard cars purely as a way of getting from point A to point B. Not surprisingly, they are hated with a passion by keen drivers who love nothing more than getting the best from their beloved cars, preferably on a favourite stretch of winding road at a quiet time.
Interestingly, two totally different groups are keenest on buying an autonomous car:
The first doesn’t come as a surprise: tech-savvy youngsters who are approaching driving age and simply love having the latest and greatest in electronics around them. Some even say they would sacrifice some of their spending on other tech items just to get into a self-driving car.
The second group may initially come as a surprise – baby boomers. That’s because they will one day lose their mobility when their licences are cancelled after they fail a driving test. As I’m only about 15 to 20 years away from this horrendous happening I’m keeping a close eye on what is going on in the self-driving world.
Fully autonomous cars, those without a steering wheel and pedals, are still many years away. Experts predictions range widely, generally from about 10 years to 30 years.
However, many people are surprised to learn that partially autonomous cars are already on our roads. I know, I’ve driven them.
You may well have been in horrible traffic with me the other day when a car and a truck managed to come together and blocked most of the M1 motorway south of Brisbane during peak hours. Bet you didn’t know I was letting the BMW do most of the boring work! The big Bimmer was keeping pace with the car in front and sitting squarely within the lane lines. It wasn’t as scary as you might think, though I did keep my brake foot on standby and didn’t let my hands get too far from the steering wheel.
A couple of years back I drove a Mercedes-Benz CL 500 from the Gold Coast to the Sunshine coast, and let it do the work for about 40 per cent of the trip. It used it intelligent cruise control to keep the correct distance from the car in front and steered itself within the white lines. It did give me a visual nudge every ten to twenty seconds to tell me to keep my hands on the steering wheel. All I had to do was touch the wheel briefly to give the car the impression I was steering again and off we went for another driverless spell.
After two hours I got a warning from the Merc that I might be suffering from fatigue and should perhaps stop for a while. It really is amazing the amount of help cars are providing us these days. Particularly in active safety, that is avoiding a crash.
Car companies are very aware of the legal ramifications of this sort of driving. I’m sure many of you will have ticked the ‘Agree’ box on your car’s infotainment systems to say you will take responsibility for safety – yet had no intention of doing so. Thinking that it’s okay to send and receive texts.
Fully autonomous vehicles will need incredibly complex systems. Indeed, it has been said that your self-driving family car will have more sensors to keep track of what’s happening around it than a giant Airbus A380.
Surprised? So was I, till it was explained that the Airbus is travelling in highly regulated routes, will never be closer than 1000 metres to another aircraft, is being watched over by two highly qualified pilots, monitored by radar controllers on the ground, all while it’s keeping an electronic eye on other aircraft in its vicinity.
Still on aircraft comparisons; did you realise that on the road you’re often travelling closer to other vehicles than the RAAF Roulettes aerobatic team pilots during their amazing shows? With due respect to your driving skills, may I suggest that the RAAF pilots have had far more training than you? And certainly aren’t checking emails and texts while up there…
Driverless vehicles are a very complex subject, one that I will cover from time to time, with emphasis on individual topics within it. Would love to hear your opinions as well. Be it on driving convenience, road safety or anything else that crosses your mind about autonomous cars.
As usual you can reach me on firstname.lastname@example.org