50 years on from a forward-looking BBC news report on driverless cars, how close did they get to today’s reality?

Video: BBC Archive releases remarkably prescient 1971 news report on driverless cars

On 5 May, the BBC Archive released a news broadcast from May 1971 showcasing “driverless cars and the future of motoring”, as part of its Retro Transport strand.

Self-driving 1971 style

Filmed at the Road Research Laboratory (RRL) in Berkshire – which became the Transport Research Laboratory, and then TRL, which now runs London’s Smart Mobility Living Lab – our man from the Beeb makes some bold predictions.

So, with the massive benefit of hindsight, how did he get on?

He begins: “There’ll be 30 million cars on the roads of Britain by the end of this century. And motoring will be quite different.”

That’s a strong start as, according to Statista, the number of licensed cars in the UK in the year 2000 was 27.2 million, hugely up from around 10 million when he made the prediction. Not bad crystal-ball gazing!

He goes on to discuss how on-board black-box recorders will assist with toll-paying and traffic regulation, saying: “They’ve been showing us for the first time some of the machinery which will enable them to bill us by computer for driving in these places.

“The idea is that at the entrance to the busy city centre or to other crucial points on the road, there’ll be electrified loops of wire underneath the road surface. And as a car passes, it activates these electric wires.”

Not 10 out of 10 maybe, but still remarkably prescient given congestion charging and telematics-based insurance are now a reality.

It also brings to mind our interview last year with Elliot Hemes, of IPG Automotive UK, who suggested:You could say, for example, you can’t use the M6 Toll unless you have vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communications. That would enable platooning.”

So, 50 years on, in terms of road-charging and vehicle connectivity in the UK, his prediction is well on the way to becoming true. Can he keep it up?

The next segment covers research into the most efficient means of getting vehicles on and off Channel Tunnel trains.

Again, he’s pretty spot on, apart from optimistically suggesting this could be in operation by 1978. In reality, construction didn’t start for another decade and the service wasn’t available until 1994. Still, on the big points, he hasn’t been wrong yet.

Driverless crystal-ball gazing

The report saved the best til last, with the segment on self-driving beginning just over two-minutes in.

The reporter enthused: “The very last word is the totally automatic car, no driver at all. The whole thing’s remotely controlled by cables and electrics under the road.”

Hmmm, that’s sounds more like Scalextric than an autonomous vehicle.

Still, he pressed on: “Steering, accelerating, gear-changing, braking and stopping, all the switches and electronics in the car could be provided for £100.”

If only. Maybe costs will come down over time and he’ll end up being proved right.

Thankfully, he rediscovers his inner Nostradmus towards the end, explaining: “The radar device on the front will one day be able to tell how near you are to the car in front of you and slow you down automatically.”

Basically, automated emergency braking (AEB).

Adding: “It’s all needed because you and I are not as good as machines. We tire, we lose concentration, we get cross. One day we will just be able to link our car onto an automatic system to take us right up the motorway.”

I heard something very similar at the Zenzic Connected and Automated Mobility (CAM) Innovators event just last month.

He concluded: “So, we’ve had a glimpse or two of driving of the future. It’s going to be probably easier, certainly more regimented. And the day may come when the driver becomes totally redundant.”

Most impressive, as Darth Vader said in Empire Strikes Back, especially considering the Star Wars universe was still a figment of George Lucas’s imagination.

Finnish company Sensible 4 tests two self-driving Toyota Proace vans at minus 20 degrees.

Snow way! Finland successfully trials L4 self-driving in worst weather for years

At this week’s FT Future of the Car Summit, Volkswagen Group CEO, Herbert Diess, predicted it could take years for self-driving cars to master extreme weather.

He’s probably right, but the technology is progressing at a startling rate. See this incredible footage from testing in Q1 2022 by Finnish self-driving company, Sensible 4:

Video: Sensible 4 self-driving Toyota Proace in Tampere, Finland, in 2022

Conducted in Tampere, southern Finland, the two-and-a-half month pilot scheme involved two self-driving Toyota Proace vans operating in mixed traffic on a 3.5km route at up to 30km/h, in what Sensible 4 describe as “the worst and most challenging winter conditions in years”.

Sensible 4 self-driving Toyota Proace in street in Tampere, Finland, 2022
Sensible 4 self-driving Toyota Proace in street in Tampere, Finland, 2022

The treacherous conditions included temperatures below -20°C, heavy snowfall, freezing rain, and additional slipperiness due to temperature variations around zero degrees. Not exactly the glorious sunshine of San Francisco, or even Margate for that matter!

Sensible 4 develops SAE Level 4 full-stack autonomous driving software potentially capable of giving any vehicle self-driving capabilities. The technology combines software and information from different sensors to enable operation, it claims, “in all weather conditions”.

Sensible 4 self-driving Toyota Proace cabin view
Sensible 4 self-driving Toyota Proace cabin view

The pilot was a part of the EU-funded SHOW project, with an aim to find out how autonomous vehicles could work as a part of future urban transportation.

Public reaction to the vans – emblazoned with the slogan “I’m Driverless” – was said to be positive.

Sensible 4 self-driving Toyota Proace with I’m driverless slogan
Sensible 4 self-driving Toyota Proace with I’m driverless slogan

Mika Kulmala, Project Manager for the City of Tampere, said: “The self-driving vehicles ran smoothly and felt safe. In the future, I see these kinds of vehicles complementing the public transportation system for certain routes and amounts of passengers.

“We still need more testing to make sure of reliability, and that the service either brings cost-savings or gives a better service level to the population.”

Sensible 4 self-driving Toyota Proace with bus in Tampere
Sensible 4 self-driving Toyota Proace with public transport in Tampere

The project’s national coordinator, Pekka Eloranta, from Sitowise, added: “We got a good amount of passengers to try and test the service, even some regular customers.

“Also, we were able to collect feedback, for example, concerning accessibility. This aspect is important to take into account to be able to provide service to all user groups in the future.”

Sensible 4 self-driving Toyota Proace vans
Sensible 4 self-driving Toyota Proace vans

Jussi Suomela, of Sensible 4, was understandably very satisfied. “This pilot was valuable for understanding the customer and end-user needs better, including especially the accessibility aspects,” he said.

“The weather was exceptionally snowy but the software and vehicles performed well and we were able to collect important test data of the extreme conditions and experience of the challenging weather.”

Sensible 4 will continue operating pilots later this year in Norway, Switzerland, Japan and Germany.

CAVForth self-driving bus begins landmark two-week road trial in Scotland

UK self-driving success as CAVForth bus project conducts first public road test

A full-size autonomous bus took to public roads for the first time in the UK this week, as CAVForth began a landmark two-week trial in Scotland.

Cars of the Future readers will recognise the name as, almost a year ago to the day, we published a long-read interview with Jim Hutchinson, CEO of Fusion Processing, one of the partners in the project, along with Stagecoach, Alexander Dennis and Transport Scotland.

Self-driving expert and CEO of Fusion Processing, Jim Hutchinson
Self-driving expert and CEO of Fusion Processing, Jim Hutchinson

He explained then how Fusion was involved in the Gateway project in London, and how that led to CAVForth. “The hope is that it will go from a pilot service to a full service,” he said. “It’s being registered as a new route, providing a service that wasn’t previously there, and Stagecoach anticipate around 10,000 journeys a week.

“The route includes a mix of road environments – motorway, bus lanes, roundabouts, signalled interchanges – so from our point of view it makes for a great demonstration of capability. There’s the technology side, which Fusion is focussed on, but there’s also key research around public acceptance.

“It will be a very significant achievement to demonstrate a Level 4 capability on that class of vehicle – a big thing for the UK which will be noticed around the world.”

UK self-driving first

Well, 12 months on, CAVForth is very much on schedule. Level 4 automation, according to the SAE International standard, means no human is driving and, unlike Level 3, won’t be required to take over. Make no mistake, this is a big deal.

Around 500 members of the public have provided feedback on what would make them feel “comfortable and confident in travelling”. As a result, a decision has been made to keep a member of staff on board.

The test phase will run for two weeks in preparation for the launch of the CAVForth pilot this summer. That’s when things will get really exciting, with passengers.

Stagecoach plans to recruit 20 specially trained ‘Autonomous Bus Professionals’ from across its East Scotland business. When the service goes live, these experienced bus drivers will monitor the autonomous system alongside a ‘Captain’, who will move around the bus answering any questions passengers may have about the service.

Part-funded by the UK Government’s Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles (CCAV), five single-decker autonomous buses will operate at SAE Level 4 over the Forth Road Bridge, between Ferrytoll Park and Ride in Fife and the Edinburgh Park Train and Tram Interchange.

The buses will be fitted with Fusion Processing’s CAVstar sensor and control technology, enabling them to run on pre-selected roads without the safety driver having to intervene.

A nugget to note here, as Hutchinson explained to us last year: “We developed the CAVstar platform as a scalable solution – a drive system we could put into pretty much any vehicle, from small cars up to HGV.” Think about the potential.

The CAVForth buses will carry up to 36 passengers over a 14-mile route and, to support the project, Transport Scotland recently opened a section of Actively Managed Hard Shoulder for all buses on the M8 eastbound.

CAVForth self-driving bus with Fusion Processing tech and branding
CAVForth self-driving bus with Fusion Processing tech and branding

Official comments

Sam Greer, Regional Director for Stagecoach in Scotland, said: “This is a hugely exciting project for Scotland and we are pleased to be starting live testing on roads. This is a major step forward in our journey to launch the UK’s first full-sized autonomous bus service and will provide easy access to a brand-new bus route in the heart of East Scotland.”

Chris Gall, Group Engineering Director at busmaker Alexander Dennis Limited (ADL), said: “CAVForth helps us to explore new technologies that will make buses even safer and more efficient. As we move towards passenger services later in the year, the project will be a landmark demonstration of future technologies in transport.”

Jim Hutchinson added: “We are delighted to be leading the world’s most complex and ambitious autonomous vehicle programme. CAVForth will provide a useful service to local people as well as being a great demonstration of Fusion’s automated vehicle technology.

“On road testing is an exciting milestone in the development of autonomous commercial vehicles and we look forward to welcoming passengers onboard in a few months’ time.”

Interest in self-driving

As an indicator of growing interest in the project, satirical site Newsthump ran a story on it this week, under the headline “UK’s first self-driving bus passes ‘ignore passengers running to bus stop’ test”.

It may be mainstream now but, remember, you heard it here first.

Changes to The Highway Code move Britain “closer to a self-driving revolution”.

UK Highway Code self-driving announcement sparks media uproar

In a major development for connected and automated mobility (CAM) in the UK, on 20 April 2022 the government set out changes to The Highway Code to move Britain “closer to a self-driving revolution”.

The announcement, by Department for Transport (DfT), the Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles (CCAV), and Trudy Harrison MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary at the DfT, certainly had the wow factor.

Self-driving safety

The bullet points at the start stated the important overriding aim to “ensure the first self-driving vehicles are introduced safely on UK roads”.

The planned changes to The Highway Code are therefore intended to “clarify drivers’ responsibilities in self-driving vehicles, including when a driver must be ready to take back control”.

Eyebrows were raised at the line: “While travelling in self-driving mode, motorists must be ready to resume control in a timely way if they are prompted to – such as when they approach motorway exits.”

More hyperbolic self-driving headlines

But the announcement ran into real trouble with this: “The plans also include a change to current regulation, allowing drivers to view content that is not related to driving on built-in display screens, while the self-driving vehicle is in control. It will, however, still be illegal to use mobile phones in self-driving mode, given the greater risk they pose in distracting drivers.”

The national press went into meltdown and we’ll look at this in more detail in a special edition of Hyperbolic Self-driving Headlines. But it was enough to prompt senior CAM industry figures to come out in defence of the technology.

Edward Houghton, Head of Research and Service Design at DG Cities, took to Twitter to criticise a Guardian article – A self-driving revolution? Don’t believe the hype: we’re barely out of second gear – for significantly playing down where self-driving R&D is in the UK and for failing to acknowledge its potential to improve road safety.

List of cars approved for self-driving

Back to the announcement itself. This section is worth rereading: “Britain’s first vehicles approved for self-driving could be ready for use later this year. Vehicles will undergo rigorous testing and only be approved as self-driving when they have met stringent standards.”

What does that actually mean? Ever astute, Barrister Alex Glassbrook, who last year expressed real doubts about proposed changes to the Highway Code, took to Linkedin to highlight the launch of a new government webpage for “Self-driving vehicles listed for use in Great Britain”.

At the time of publication the page lists, er, no vehicles. However, it does include the line “You must insure your self-driving vehicle as self-driving”.

New webpage to check if a vehicle is listed as self-driving for use in Great Britain
New webpage to check if a vehicle is listed as self-driving for use in Great Britain

So, the question remains: Will cars equipped with Automated Lane Keeping Systems (ALKS) be the first to make the grade and be official recognised as “automated”?

Glassbrook also noted a 2025 target for having a full regulatory framework in place to support the widespread deployment of self-driving technology.

Official comments

The announcement – which asserted that self-driving vehicles could create 38,000 new, high-skilled jobs in Britain by 2035 – was accompanied by statements from Transport Minister Trudy Harrison, the RAC’s Steve Gooding and the SMMT’s Mike Hawes.

Transport Minister Harrison said: “This is a major milestone in our safe introduction of self-driving vehicles, which will revolutionise the way we travel, making our future journeys greener, safer and more reliable.

“This exciting technology is developing at pace right here in Great Britain and we’re ensuring we have strong foundations in place for drivers when it takes to our roads.

“In doing so, we can help improve travel for all while boosting economic growth across the nation and securing Britain’s place as a global science superpower.”

Steve Gooding, director of the RAC Foundation, said: “The Highway Code has been updated a number of times in recent years. These latest additions will help us all understand what we must and must not do as we move forward to an environment where cars drive themselves.

“The final part of the jigsaw is to ensure these amendments are widely communicated to, ​and understood by,​ vehicle owners. Vehicle manufacturers and sellers will have a vital role to play in ensuring their customers fully appreciate the capabilities of the cars they buy and the rules that govern them.”

Mike Hawes, Chief Executive of The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, said: “Amending The Highway Code to reflect the pace of technological change will help clarify what motorists can and can’t do when a self-driving feature is engaged, so promoting its safe use.”

As you can imagine, there was reaction to the news from across the automotive industry, including the service and repair sector.

Neil Atherton, Sales and Marketing Director at Autoglass, rightly drew attention to the need for sensor recalibration.

“Much has been made of the dawn of fully autonomous vehicles, but in reality many of these technologies are already in our vehicles,” he said.

“Advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS), especially the windscreen fitted sensors that monitor road conditions and hazards in real time, will need to be fitted in all new cars rolling off the production line later this year, and drivers and the wider automotive industry need to be ready to use and maintain them properly. 

“Calibration and recalibration of these technologies is absolutely critical for their effective operation.”

Watch what happens when SFPD pull a driverless Cruise robotaxi on April Fools’ Day 2022

Full 3 minute video: Police stop self-driving car in San Francisco – “Ain’t nobody in it!” and then it drives off

A video has gone viral of San Francisco police pulling over a Cruise robotaxi only to find it completely devoid of humans, a truly driverless self-driving car. “Ain’t nobody in it!” the officer says.

Then, with comic timing, when the officer turns his back, the car – a modified Chevrolet Bolt – drives off, pulling over again on the other side of an intersection, with the police car in pursuit, lights flashing.

Watch police pull a self-driving car

Video of police stopping self-driving car in San Francisco by Brandon Melim via ViralHog 

As previously reported, General Motors–backed Cruise started offering automated rides to the public in San Francisco with no safety driver in February.

On the night in question – hilariously 1st April 2022, April Fools’ Day (honestly, you couldn’t make it up!) – officers pulled the car because it was driving at night without headlights. Cruise later said this was due to human error.

The video was posted to Instagram by b.rad916 with the comment: “Confused SFPD pulling over an autonomous vehicle in the Richmond District!! Then it tries to take off!!”, followed by the grinning squinting face and police car emojis.

Police stop self-driving car in San Francisco by Brandon Melim via ViralHog
Police stop self-driving car in San Francisco by Brandon Melim via ViralHog

He later explained: “My friends and I were walking home from dinner down Clement Street when we heard police sirens. We didn’t think much of it but when I looked over, I noticed there was nobody driving, so I pulled out my phone and started recording.

“When the officers got the Cruise autonomous car to pull over, they approached the vehicle and the windows rolled down. Turned out they initiated the stop because it was driving without its headlights on.

“I thought it was funny that the officers were so confused and found it funny (they were laughing and pacing back-and-forth). I also thought it was strange that the cops think it’s necessary for a robot car to need headlights to see. I’m sure the cameras and AI are advanced enough to navigate safely at night and can see better than the human eye.”

What about other cars seeing it though? Anyway, mirth abounded with amused onlookers, presumably quite familiar with these revolutionary cars of the future, laughing and joking… as if they’d been waiting for something like this to happen.

The best comments heard on the video include: “Ain’t nobody in it”, “This is crazy”, “Are you serious? How does that happen?”, “Oh my god I have to watch this”, “Can you send that to me please?”, “Guys… oh my god, finally”, “So it stops when pulled over? Automatically?”, “We’ve got a code 7 here” – apparently a reference to police radio code for out of service to eat – and, simply, “What the f***”.

Official responses

The San Francisco Police Department reportedly confirmed: “On Friday, April 1, 2022, at approximately 10:00pm officers observed a vehicle travelling without activated headlights at Clement Street and 8th Avenue.

“Officers stopped behind the vehicle and discovered that there was no driver in the vehicle and no other occupant was present. During this contact officers affected a traffic stop. The vehicle moved forward but stopped again to yield for the officers.

“During the stop officers made contact with the remote operator of the driverless vehicle. Upon the officer’s notification a maintenance team responded to the vehicle’s location and took control of the vehicle. No citation was issued during the traffic stop.”

A pretty lenient response, basically: no ticket on this occasion, be on your way.

Cruise responded on Twitter on 10 April: “Chiming in with more details: our AV yielded to the police vehicle, then pulled over to the nearest safe location for the traffic stop, as intended. An officer contacted Cruise personnel and no citation was issued.”

Before adding: “We work closely with the SFPD on how to interact with our vehicles, including a dedicated phone number for them to call in situations like this.”

The company also highlighted its November 2021 YouTube video Interacting with a Cruise Autonomous Vehicle: A Guide for First Responders.

Only in California, you might say, but how long before we see such incidents in the UK?

 

For fans of burning rubber it might be hard to take, but self-driving cars are here and now

Bullitt was peak 20th century, self-driving is sensational San Francisco today

The first quarter of 2022 has seen two giant leaps forward for self-driving in America. First, in February, General Motors–backed Cruise started offering robotaxi rides to the public in San Francisco… with no safety driver.

Then, in March, The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) removed the necessity for autonomous vehicles to have manual controls including, notably, a steering wheel.

Cruise self-driving robotaxi

Cruise posted a video showing consumers’ reactions to riding in a truly driverless taxi – they ranged from “This is so cool” to “Just weird”, “Slightly scary” to “A lot smoother than I was expecting”, and probably most astutely: “I am literally witnessing the future”.

General Motors (GM) chief executive, Mary Barra, told shareholders: “This major milestone brings Cruise even closer to offering its first paid rides and generating $50bn in annual revenue by the end of the decade.”

Make no mistake, this is a significant development: A household-name US vehicle manufacturer (VM) operating a driverless taxi with no safety driver in a popular global tourist destination.

Not just any old city either – the streets of San Francisco, so closely associated with the iconic high speed car chase from the Steve McQueen film Bullitt. For fans of burning rubber and squealing brakes, it will be hard to take, but that was 1968, over half a century ago. V8 Ford Mustangs and Dodge Chargers are history. Self-driving cars are the future.

If you need further convincing, you need only look to the historic NHTSA announcement, on 10 March 2022, eliminating the need for manufacturers to equip fully autonomous vehicles with a steering wheel.

It’s something we were speculating about at Cars of the Future just last summer – when we looked at Audi’s Grandsphere concept car, with a steering wheel which folds neatly away when in hands-free mode. It’s also a startling indicator of just how rapidly this industry is moving.

Audi Grandsphere concept car steering wheel sketch
Audi Grandsphere self-driving concept

US self-driving law change

The legislative change follows lobbying by General Motors and updates the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards related to occupant protection in vehicles with an automated driving system (ADS).

NHTSA Deputy Administrator, Steven Cliff, commented: “As the driver changes from a person to a machine in ADS-equipped vehicles, the need to keep the humans safe remains the same and must be integrated from the beginning.”

America is surging ahead in self-driving and if the UK wants to remain “at the forefront of this change”, as the Government says, we’d better get our skates on.

DG Cities surveys UK views on driverless cars – roughly a third in favour, a third against and a third undecided.

Happy to go driverless? D-Risk reveals even 36/29/35 UK opinion split

DG Cities, a London-based company specialising in people-centred smart city technologies, has conducted interesting research into the UK public’s views on driverless cars.

The headline result was: Of 1,034 people surveyed in 2021, 36.4% would be happy to ride in an autonomous vehicle (AV) tomorrow, with 28.5% undecided and 35.1% less keen.

There were significant differences across the age groups, with over half (56.1%) of 18-34 year-olds confident that self-driving cars will be safer than human-driven vehicles, compared to less than a third (30.3%) of those aged 55 and over.

The work was part of the Innovate UK funded D-Risk project, focused on improving the safety of self-driving cars. DG Cities’ D-Risk partners include AI specialist dRisk.ai, software developer Claytex and Imperial College London.

We spoke to Edward Houghton, Head of Research and Service Design at DG Cities, to find out more.

Public engagement on driverless

EH: “We’re an urban innovation company looking at new technologies within cities to understand how they can be implemented with the public and communities in mind. We work on projects based around new tech, like autonomous vehicles, and we speak to the public about their experiences, supporting tech developers to implement their products in the most safe and appropriate way.

Autonomous vehicles get a lot of press interest and, because the technology is still very much in development, the public rightly have questions. It’s a really interesting topic. I’m a behavioural scientist and environmental engineer, so my interest is in the public perception side – how people see and understand these vehicles, their experiences of using them.

“We look at how people could use this type of service in the future, and the kind of ethical design requirements the technologies will need to work effectively. DG Cities specialises in engaging the public in the debate around autonomous vehicles, working with our partners to understand how we can make the technology accessible.”

Driverless perception age differences

EH: “The idea was to try and understand how ready the UK public is to adopt this type of technology. We provided a definition of what we mean by self-driving – a vehicle that can operate by itself between points A and B with minimal human interaction.

“We found some interesting differences according to age. Older people seemed to be more concerned about safety and didn’t necessarily trust the vehicle to make the right decision. Younger people were far more likely to say they would trust the vehicle.

“There are a number of reasons why this might be the case. For example, older people may have seen technologies in the past that they now don’t trust, or there may be a low level of tech literacy.”

Near miss data

EH: “DG Cities has been a partner in other autonomous vehicle projects – we ran engagement on the driverless trial in Greenwich a few years – but D-Risk was the first where we looked specifically at safety and trust, and also tried to collect edge cases.

“The really unique part of D-Risk is the knowledge graph – our “map” of real-life edge cases from traffic cameras and police accident reports. We’re also using Facebook to ask the public about complex scenarios they’ve experienced – extraordinary things an autonomous vehicle might need to deal with.

“Whether you’re a driver or not, we’ve all heard scary stories of when things go wrong. But accident reports only capture incidents, so data on near misses is missing. The public can tell us about when they got very close to being in a severe accident. That’s very powerful in terms of adding to the library. Our partners then turn it into simulation and coding to train the vehicles.”

D-Risk report on driverless cars 2021
D-Risk Community Insights Report on driverless cars 2021

For more info and to read the full report visit drisk-project.org

Relationship between driverless cars, the media and consumer confidence reflected in five hyperbolic headlines.

Driverless cars: public trust peril in 5 hyperbolic headlines

Self-driving experts talk constantly of the need to earn public trust, but driverless cars continue to divide opinion. Indeed, recent surveys have shown that people are becoming more, not less, wary of them.

Just this week, in Inverness, Scotland, where an autonomous bus trial is due to start later this year, The Inverness Courier reported significant resistance to the idea. 69% of respondents to its survey of local residents said they would refuse to get on a driverless bus.

What we need, of course, is for the media to convey an informed and nuanced safety message. Hmm! To illustrate the scale of the task, here’s a list of our top five hyperbolic headlines:

Top 5 driverless car hyperbolic headlines

At No.5, a downbeat new entry from The Express: “Driverless cars could have a ‘negative impact’ – ‘worrying results’ for road users”.

At No.4, peak pessimism in this 2019 classic from The New York Post: “Why humanity will come to regret inventing self-driving cars”.

At No.3, a prediction of economic disaster from The Telegraph in 2019: “Driverless cars are the new dot-com bubble”.

At No.2, straight up weird from Forbes in 2019: “Self-Driving Cars Could Spark A Religious Revival Among Young Americans”.

And, at No.1, another new entry, straight into the top spot, from Yahoo News in November 2021: “Watch Tesla’s full self-driving mode almost kill a CNN reporter”.

The autonomous vehicle industry has a consumer confidence mountain to climb!

Audi’s Grandsphere concept car features a retractable steering wheel for hands-off mode.

How to tell if a car is truly driverless: Has it got a steering wheel?

One of the biggest barriers to the successful introduction of driverless cars is confusion over what constitutes true self-driving.

In America, the controversial autonomous vehicle expert, Alex Roy, has suggested a self-driving litmus test called Roy’s Razor. “Can you get in, pick a destination and safely go to sleep?” he asks. “If yes, it’s self-driving. If no, it’s not.”

While this has some merit, the key word “safely” gets somewhat lost. The internet is awash with less than sensible people climbing out of the driver’s seat with their Tesla in Autopilot.

So, here’s an idea to head off such recklessness… the best way to tell if a car is truly self-driving is to ask this simple question: Has it got a steering wheel?

Audi has apparently been down this road in the thinking behind its new Grandsphere concept car. When in “hands-off” mode, the steering wheel folds neatly away.

Audi Grandsphere concept car fold away steering wheel
Audi Grandsphere concept car with fold away steering wheel

That certainly removes any doubt as to whether the driver is responsible for driving or just a user in charge, to use The Law Commission of England and Wales’ new lingo.

“We will be ready for Level 4 driving in the second half of this decade,” said Josef Schloßmacher, Audi’s spokesperson for concept cars.

“That’s an important timeframe for us and we will interact with authorities in the different continents and countries in all important markets on the homologation of this new technology.”

While somewhat open to the accusation of a fudge – if it is truly self-driving, why do you need a steering wheel at all? – this looks like progress.

Driverless Toyota e-Palette bus hits blind Japanese judo star

Injury setback for self-driving at Tokyo Paralympics

A golden PR opportunity for driverless cars backfired badly this week when a Toyota self-driving e-Palette shuttle bus hit a visually impaired athlete at the Tokyo Paralympic Games.

It had all been going so well. A fleet of eye-catching autonomous electric vehicles successfully ferrying competitors and officials around the Olympic village was a major triumph for the self-driving industry, and Toyota in particular.

But this Olympic fairy tale received a nasty reality check when a slow-moving e-Palette collided with Japanese judo veteran Aramitsu Kitazono, apparently ending his medal hopes.

Kitazono had been due to face Ukraine’s Dmytro Solovey the following day, but didn’t take to the mat. Toyota Chief Executive Akio Toyoda swiftly apologised, but the damage was done.

We first covered the e-Palette last year in our interview with Yosuke Ushigome, Director at Takram, who worked on Toyota’s future car concepts.

Somewhat ironically now, given the accident involved a blind man, our headline endorsed “flickering lights to replace eye contact in facilitating trust”. Perhaps audible warnings are also warranted.

Tokyo Paralympics Toyota e-Palette
Tokyo Paralympics Toyota e-Palette

“Throughout the development process, athletes, especially Paralympians, helped us understand how the e-Palette could be adapted and upgraded to better meet their needs for simple, convenient and comfortable mobility,” said Takahiro Muta, the project’s development leader, in 2019.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. Last December, the idea of these autonomous vehicles playing a practical role at this showcase sporting event was enticing, to say the least – some questioned whether it would even be possible.

Now we are left with Toyoda’s grim assessment of the incident. “It shows that autonomous vehicles are not yet realistic for normal roads,” he said.

Use of the e-Palette fleet was suspended for several days but has now resumed.