Must-see video: why is Ford disguising drivers as car seats?

Ford Europe has posted a new video highlighting an innovative approach to autonomous vehicle testing:

Drivers frequently use hand gestures (!), head nods and eye contact to communicate with other road users. For example, to establish that a pedestrian is crossing, that a cyclist has seen them or that they’re letting another car go first.

But how will self-driving vehicles achieve a similar degree of interaction? One idea is to use flashing lights of different colours.

To test the theory without spending a fortune on autonomous tech, Ford created the “Human Car Seat” – camouflaging a driver so the vehicle, at first glance at least, looks driverless.

This homespun method allows observers to more effectively gauge real-world responses.

According to Automotive World, 60% of people surveyed thought the Transit Connect was an autonomous vehicle and turquoise emerged as the preferred light colour.

Ford, in partnership with electronics specialist Hella, is now conducting further tests, including positioning the lights on the grille and headlamps.

Not anytime soon? Driverless cars are already here

There’s a story doing the rounds this week that autonomous cars “aren’t coming anytime soon”.

Well, here in the UK the government is planning public road trials without safety drivers.

In the US, Waymo already has 10 million self-driving miles on public roads under its belt.

Serious issues like who to save in no-win crash situations and reasons to fear driverless: personal data remain, but the autonomous vehicle revolution has started.

UK plans ‘advanced’ driverless car road trials… meaning no safety driver

Driverless cars are a hot topic in the UK today (6 February 2019) thanks to a Government announcement on “advanced trials for self-driving vehicles”.

Stories ran in most of the biggest-selling newspapers focusing on the removal of the requirement for a safety driver. Actually, all the Department for Transport (DfT) committed itself to was to develop a process to help support advanced trials of automated vehicles.

Automotive Minister, Richard Harrington, said: “We need to ensure we take the public with us as we move towards having self-driving cars on our roads by 2021. The update to the code of practice will provide clearer guidance to those looking to carry out trials on public roads.”

The door to the removal of safety drivers is opened in point 1.4 of the introduction, on page 5 of the newly updated Code of Practice: Automated vehicle trialling (pictured).

It states that: “The Government acknowledges the desire to conduct advanced trials on public roads. Such trials may not readily fit within current UK legislation, so the Department for Transport’s motoring agencies will introduce and operate a process to support those looking to safely conduct advanced trials.”

The DfT emphasised that the Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles (CCAV) must be informed in advance and trials would not be supported unless they pass rigorous safety assessments.

So, what have we learnt? That “advanced trials” in this context is broadly a euphemism for road tests without a safety driver, and that the timetable for implementation is ambitious: “for self-driving cars on our roads by 2021”.

With the lack of clarity around The driverless dilemma: who to save in no-win crash situations and a plethora of other unresolved issues, there is much to debate.

The fact is today’s announcement brings us closer to having driverless cars on UK roads.

A dystopian vision of polluted London

Recycling company First Mile has released this striking image of how London’s Oxford Street could look if we fail to tackle air pollution.

Two technologies being championed to avoid such a dystopian fate are electric powertrains and route optimisation programmes – both popular concepts in connected and autonomous vehicle (CAV) design.

However, new research by Adam Millard-Ball, associate professor of environmental studies at the University of California, suggests that, rather than solving the issue of congestion in city centres, self-driving cars could exacerbate the problem, creating gridlock.

“Parking prices are what get people out of their cars and on to public transit, but autonomous vehicles have no need to park at all,” he said. “They can get around paying for parking by cruising. They will have every incentive to create havoc.”

According to Interesting Engineering, his paper, The Autonomous Vehicle Problem, estimates that just 2,000 self-driving vehicles in the San Francisco area will slow traffic to less than 2mph – a nightmare scenario.

Telematics combined with smart congestion charging could conceivably negate this undesirable impact, but the study is grist to the mill for those advising stricter regulation of driverless cars.

The driverless dilemma: who to save in no-win crash situations

Addressing the vital question of what driverless cars should do in no-win crash situations, an AA survey of 21,000 UK drivers found that 59% would rather put themselves in harm’s way than risk more lives.

That seems highly magnanimous, but other results were far from clear-cut. 40% of respondents “preferred not to say” when faced with unpalatable options like running over children or the elderly.

AA president, Edmund King, said: “Of those who could make a choice, a clear majority decided to put themselves in danger, perhaps indicating they accept the risks and potential fallibilities of the technology.

“The driverless dilemma is a common question for programmers of autonomous vehicles, but the number of people who avoided giving a definitive answer shows this is a difficult ‘live or let die’ dilemma.”

The AA survey broadly backs up the findings outlined in Reasons to fear driverless cars – namely that most people agree:

1) Humans should be saved over animals.
2) The lives of many should outweigh the few.
3) The young should have priority over the old.

But it isn’t that simple. The waters get murky when people are asked if they would rather purchase a car programmed to protect them.

Azim Shariff, of the University of Oregon, asks: “Would you really want to be among the minority shouldering the duties of safety, when everyone else is free-riding, so to speak, on your equitability?”

Will all manufacturers apply the same default settings? Should owners be able to change them?

It is a huge concern that driverless cars could be on sale by 2021 when we’re not even close to answering such fundamental questions.

Drink driverless

Being able to have a beverage and leave the car in charge of the journey home is often cited (mainly by people in the pub) as one of the key benefits of driverless tech.

However, according to a report in the Standard, Huawei – the Chinese company best known for its phones – is designing cabin software which can spot if the owner is drunk and call the police.

The reason? Being drunk in charge of a vehicle, even if not driving, is an offence. There’s also a concern about override functions.

The system will compare the driver’s expressions, gestures and speech with archive footage, as well as checking for suspicious items such as open bottles.

Opinion will presumably be divided as to whether this is a clever safety innovation or an unnecessary invasion of privacy.

In another alcohol-related development, Makr Shakr – the company famous for using robotic arms to make cocktails – has combined this concept with an autonomous driving pod.

Digital Trends describes the result as a self-driving robot bartender, basically a mobile bar which you could summon via a smartphone app. Mojitos all round!

Driverless cars, bikes, trucks, bots and planes

Here at Cars of the Future we focus mainly on, er, cars… but when predicting how mobility might look by mid-century there are other driverless vehicles to consider.

Driverless bikes

Sky News reported last year on what it billed as the first self-driving motorbike, developed by British engineer Torquil Ross-Martin of AutoRd.

“A computer can do a better job than a human can because it is always concentrating,” he said. “When commuting you’re not necessarily completely focussed on what you are doing. You’re thinking about what you are going to do when you get to the office or whether you’re running late. That’s where the bike will improve the safety for commuters.”

Then, at CES 2019, Tech 360 posted this incredible video of BMW’s self-driving R1200GS:

Motor Cycle News (MCN) quoted BMW’s safety expert, Stefan Hans, as saying: “We can shift gears, we can steer the bike, but the fully automatic motorcycle is not our goal.

“Safety is one of the main things that stops people riding motorcycles. If we look at the last 20 years, deaths in cars have gone down by 73%, while deaths on bikes only gone down by 38%. Cars now can intervene before something dangerous happens and we need to learn more about motorcycles to help riders avoid getting in a critical situation.”

So, self-driving bikes are getting there, but many still tip the commercial vehicle (CV) sector to lead the way in driverless motoring.

Driverless trucks

For example, Daimler Trucks North America (DTNA) recently introduced the new Freightliner Cascadia with level 2 automation.

“Automating acceleration, deceleration, and steering reduces the chance for human error, mitigates collisions, and can potentially save lives,” said a Daimler statement.

Driverless delivery bots

Perhaps surprisingly, given the attention lavished on driverless cars and platooning trucks, they could all get beaten to the punch by self-driving delivery robots.

These are already pootling about in the real-world. For instance, in collaboration with Robby Technologies, PepsiCo’s Hello Goodness ‘snackbots’ serve hungry college students in Stockton, California.

Amazon is also getting in on the act, using a compact self-driving vehicle called the Scout to make deliveries in Washington’s Snohomish County. The retail giant created this video to show its new walking-pace ‘delivery solution’ in action:

Driverless planes

With the ground getting crowded it might be quicker to take to the sky, so Boeing is working on an on-demand autonomous flying taxi.

Its test plane recently completed a controlled takeoff, hover and landing in Manassas, Virginia.

“In one year, we have progressed from a conceptual design to a flying prototype,” said Boeing’s chief technology officer, Greg Hyslop.

Must-see video: driverless from San Francisco to New York

Self-driving tech company, Pronto.ai, has posted a timelapse video of what is believed to be the longest journey yet for a driverless car, set to poetry by Charles Bukowski.

The vehicle in question, a Toyota Prius kitted out with digital maps and cameras, travelled 3,099 miles from the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco to George Washington Bridge in New York in October 2018.

According to The News Wheel, Pronto’s Anthony Levandowski – formerly an engineer for Waymo – was in the driver’s seat for the whole trip, but didn’t use the pedals or steering wheel except to stop for fuel and rest.

Personal space: inside cars of the future

While navigation tech and crash ethics grab a lot of future car column inches, the implications for interiors deserve more attention.

As Marek Reichman, Aston Martin’s chief creative officer, noted at the launch of the Lagonda Vision Concept last year: “The electrification revolution means there is no longer any need for ‘horse and carriage’ design. The batteries occupy the floor of the car. Everything above that line belongs to us.”

Combine that with driverless and the options become mindboggling. From self-driving emergency clinics to mobile restaurants or red light districts on wheels, solutions will doubtless be designed for a wide range of activities.

Beyond the ‘real’ world, of course, there are further possibilities. Two former Audi employees, Nils Wollny and Marcus Kühne, set up Holoride to “develop the future of in-vehicle media”.

One innovation involves using live vehicle data (e.g. on acceleration or steering) to prompt real-time feedback in a virtual reality environment. They say this provides a more immersive experience and can also help to reduce motion sickness.

Can you love driving and driverless cars?

In an interview with Autocar last year, Jaguar Land Rover’s head of product strategy Hanno Kirner asserted that, in the age of driverless motoring, many keen drivers will still want to get behind the wheel.

“Whether it is SVO (JLR’s performance arm) recreating classics to modern standards or creating track-day specials, I think it will grow as autonomous driving becomes a regular part of lives,” he said.

The suggestion seems to be that driving will live on largely as a leisure pursuit, similarly to the way people enjoy horse riding.

The more exhilarating end of this pastime will be motorsport, but driverless vehicles are already edging into even this hallowed territory.

The radio controlled car racing scene has had a loyal following for years and esports – video game competitions – are huge these days. It isn’t the same the purists will scream. Maybe not, but it is getting closer.

Just a few days ago, 23-year-old Enzo Bonito set the internet alight by beating Formula E champion (and ex-Formula 1 driver) Lucas di Grassi on a winding track in Mexico.

Race of Champions Mexico  tweet January 2019
Race of Champions Mexico tweet January 2019

What made this performance exceptional is that Bonito is a professional gamer. He trained on racing simulators but successfully transferred those skills to tarmac to beat a big-name star.

Coincidentally, di Grassi is also CEO of the Roborace autonomous racing series, which is due to run alongside some Formula E races this season.

Is this an early example of passionate drivers and driverless cars living in harmony?