Driverless technology not ready, experts agree

AUTONOMOUS CAR DETROIT: Autonomous driving may have progressed significantly in recent years, but the technology has some way to go, according to experts at Autonomous Car Detroit. By Freddie Holmes

Despite many within the industry suggesting that driverless technology is ‘ready’, and held back only by the hurdles of legislation and issues surrounding liability, panellists during the opening discussion at Autonomous Car Detroit by Automotive Megatrends were keen to highlight that the technology in fact has some way to go.

As Dr Steve Underwood, Director of the University of Michigan’s Connected Vehicle Proving Centre (CVPC), observed, “I’m not sure the technology is there yet.” Referring to on going public testing of driverless vehicles, he was keen to point out that although very few crashes have occurred during ‘autonomous’ mode, this is due to the presence of a test driver continually monitoring the situation.

“Allowing this thing out in the wild […] still requires a significant amount of testing and validation”

In January 2016, Google revealed that test drivers of its autonomous vehicles had to regain control of the vehicle 272 times between September 2014 and November 2015 in California. During this period, a total of 424,331 miles (682,895km) were driven ‘autonomously’.

However, Underwood argued: “You have to realise that yes, much testing is carried out without a crash, but there’s a driver in the seat ready to take over if there’s a problem. It is not a real autonomous vehicle travelling those miles if you look at the number of times he [the test driver] has to intervene.” As such, Underwood suggested that such tests do not represent “prime time” autonomous driving.

“I agree that the tech isn’t ready,” added John Maddox, Assistant Director at the University of Michigan Mobility Transformation Centre. “The leap from doing it in what I would call ‘isolated control cases’ to allowing this thing out in the wild, any engineer will tell you that still requires a significant amount of testing and validation.”

However, as Ken Laberteaux, Senior Principal Scientist at Toyota Research Institute, pointed out, some vehicles on the road today are already fitted with semi-autonomous systems which allow the car to engage an ‘autopilot’ mode. “You can buy a Tesla or S-Class today which will allow some level of automation,” he said, but admitted these systems operate in “boring” driving conditions when “the mental task of driving is low.” This might occur, he said, when driving in stop and go traffic or on a highway, for example.

“The technology is not ready to put a retail price on” – Priyantha Mudalige, R&D Group Manager, General Motors

Kirk Steudle, Director of Michigan Department of Transportation, pointed out that regardless of whether fully autonomous driving technology is ready for public roads or not, the current cost of the technology puts it out of the reach of most consumers. “Whether the technology is ready or not, it is too expensive for the masses,” he affirmed, but mused: “You could probably spend US$500,000 and have one custom built for yourself today.”

Providing an OEM’s perspective on the subject, Priyantha Mudalige, R&D Group Manager at General Motors, agreed. “The technology is not ready to put a retail price on,” he told the audience.