Autonomous: Are We There Yet?

March saw the first death involving a vehicle using an autonomous setting, April the second. The circumstances of each very different but both had commentators, potential owners and the motor vehicle industry rethinking their approach.

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Uber were in the firing line for being too lax about the onboard autonomous settings they used and disabling Volvo factory safety features. Volvo were in the firing line for allowing Uber to use their vehicle. Tesla weren’t much better off for the zero-distance follow setting and the additional safety gear required by firefighters and police when there’s a serious crash and the car goes up in flames.  Telsa’s woes continued when the US the National Transportation Safety Board removed Tesla as a party in the investigation and then the public called them out on their marketing material including images of look mum no hands while driving.

I’m in no doubt that a smarter motor vehicle will make for a safer motor vehicle. But there’s a couple of key considerations, driver education and implementation of technology. Proximity indicators, lane change assist, route planning and navigation all sound great but it’s the extent to which the technology is used, and the driver is aware of their role and the cars role at any time.

The Volvo XC90 SUV that Uber was operating as part of its autonomous-driving program had its manufacturer-installed crash-avoidance equipment deactivated when it hit and killed a pedestrian in March. Instead, Uber had installed its own technology on the vehicle. Technology which failed.

An Aptive spokesperson (the company that provides Volvo with its cameras and radar) told Bloomberg, “We don’t want people to be confused or think it was a failure of the technology that we supply for Volvo, because that’s not the case.”

It’s worth noting the woman hit by the car was pushing her bike, a form of transport neglected by many modern city planners. Some have suggested she was forced to cross in the middle of the road by city planning that is almost actively hostile to pedestrians.

The accident has forced Uber’s autonomous cars off the road in Arizona and California, Uber said it would not to renew its permits to test the vehicles there. Back to the drawing board.

There doesn’t appear to be any agreement on what caused the Tesla crash. ABC News reported complaints had been made about the performance of the car's autopilot features prior to the accident. Tesla could find no record of complaints. Tesla released the onboard data collected seconds before the crash, angering official investigators. One commentator opined it looked like vehicular suicide.

Its probably worthwhile mentioning autonomous driving levels, they range from zero to five. TechRepublic have a good summary here https://www.techrepublic.com/article/autonomous-driving-levels-0-to-5-understanding-the-differences/. Both crashes mentioned earlier happened at level three.Thilo Koslowski, a former analyst for Gartner, thinks that ultimately, there are three stages that will be relevant: "automated, autonomous, and driverless." It's important to distinguish between "autonomous" and "driverless," he said: "driverless is a more advanced stage of autonomous."

One thing that struck me about the new range of smart cars is the size of the screen which helps the driver with various settings. Gone are the half a dozen knobs to control the basics. Now you get large screens with various gesture capabilities competing for your attention rather than encouraging you to keep your eyes on the road. Interestingly the Tesla Model 3 has moved some autopilot settings from the central console to dials on the steering wheel. And a heads-up display won’t fix this issue.

Now there’s a conversation starting around the quality of roads, consistency of signage and better town planning to help our new autonomous friend’s figure things out quickly. New Zealand’s variable road quality is an issue. Even in cities, something as simple as clearly drawn cycle lanes is rare, traffic light phasing is unpredictable, road markings variable. The list goes on.

Autonomous vehicles will be with us one day, but that day isn’t that close. Even if one is well tested overseas doesn’t mean it’s going to work in New Zealand conditions without some configuration, further testing and increased investment in safer roads for all.