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Safety trumps convenience when it comes to driverless cars

AUTONOMOUS CAR DETROIT: Convenience is secondary to safety, according to industry representatives at Detroit conference. By Freddie Holmes

The opening panel discussion of Autonomous Car Detroit by Automotive Megatrends brought together experts from various fields to discuss the burning issues still facing autonomous driving. With the task of driving a vehicle taken out of the driver’s hands, the resounding opinion from the panel was that driverless cars are primarily developed to improve road safety, despite many positioning such technology as a comfort or convenience feature.

“Safety is the main reason we have this technology coming into the car,” said Ken Laberteaux, Senior Principal Scientist at the Toyota Research Institute (TRI). “The convenience factor will follow. Safety is the main benefit we will see, especially in the next ten years as these technologies – even at low automation levels one and two – should make the car a lot safer.”

“I don’t think any OEM would deploy these features unless they were fully safe”

Sharing a similar view, Priyantha Mudalige, R&D Group Manager at General Motors, pointed out that autonomous vehicles are unlikely to even hit showrooms until the aspect of safety has been cemented within the vehicle system. “I don’t think any OEM would deploy these features unless they were fully safe,” he said as part of the panel.

However, while the intention may be to make safer cars, there needs to be a business case beyond this to encourage sales. In essence, many drivers will need an extra incentive to pay the premium for such a high-tech vehicle. As such, Mudalige believes the drive to develop an autonomous car also involves establishing the benefits in terms of comfort and convenience. “I think it is a bit of both,” he affirmed. “We think this is a cool feature – people like it – so there is obviously a business opportunity there. The industry needs to cater to that,” he added, but noted that the question is how to do so safely.

However, Steve Underwood, Director of the University of Michigan’s Connected Vehicle Proving Centre (CVPC), pointed out that the primary reason a consumer buys a car in the first place is to gain a sense of freedom. As such, he stated that both factors need to become intertwined, as “safety and comfort are features of their freedom,” he said.

“It is a huge challenge and a huge opportunity, but the challenge of high automation is very intriguing”

Of particular interest during the discussion was whether such innovation stems from a genuine desire to develop driverless vehicles, or simply a reluctant acceptance that such vehicles are inevitable.

To this point, John Maddox, Assistant Director at the University of Michigan’s Mobility Transformation Centre, commented that he has observed “huge enthusiasm” from the professionals developing autonomous driving systems. “Certainly from an engineer’s point of view, it is a huge challenge and a huge opportunity, but the challenge of high automation is very intriguing,” he said. “For lawyers, it is a slightly different story,” he noted, “But after some period of time, they also get more enthusiastic.”

The panel effectively came to the conclusion that although autonomous driving will eventually enable greater levels of driving comfort, reducing accidents on the road is spurring the development of autonomous vehicles. As the University of Michigan’s Underwood affirmed: “The level of safety certainly has to be greater than that of a human driver.”

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