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.

Must-see video: VR world enables billions of driverless test miles

Having made its name in gaming graphics, it should come as no surprise that Nvidia has created an autonomous vehicle (AV) simulator – a computer platform which enables developers to design a near-infinite variety of conditions and scenarios for driverless cars.

The US tech giant (which already has links with manufacturers including Audi, Mercedes, Tesla, Toyota, Volvo and VW) says its new Drive Constellation will help the global automotive industry to drive billions of test miles safely in virtual reality.

In another notable move, Nvidia recently announced a joint initiative with the government of Luxembourg to create a national artificial intelligence (AI) laboratory.

“Luxembourg is nurturing a pan-European innovation ecosystem,” said Prime Minister Xavier Bettel. “This cooperation is big news for our local innovators, and our country is proud to be the first European country to create an AI partnership with Nvidia.”

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.

Driverless river transport: the roboat

We profiled various “other driverless vehicles” in our recent bikes, trucks, bots and planes article, well here’s another one… and it has a great name: the roboat.

So far, only small prototypes have been deployed but a bigger model with a 6x13ft hull is in development, featuring GPS, water quality testers, cameras and LIDAR.

The robotic boat is the result of a five-year research project – a collaboration between the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions (AMS).

Carlo Ratti, of MIT’s senseable city lab, envisages a new kind of on-demand infrastructure – autonomous platforms joining together to form floating bridges or stages, as well as individual roboats being able to deliver goods, transport people or collect waste.
 
This 1min 43sec video gives an overview of the project to date:

Looking ahead, the team will concentrate on finding ways to account for waves, currents, more passengers and heavier cargos.

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.