The dangers of mixed-mode autonomous vehicles

Will autonomous cars de-skill their human drivers? In a thoughtful presentation MIT researcher Bryan Reimer points out the dangers of letting cars drive themselves autonomously part of the time. As people rely on automated driving more, they drive less themselves and their experience shrinks which may make them more likely to err at the steering wheel. He also dismisses the idea that humans would be effective at monitoring an autonomous car’s actions and take over in difficult situations: Besides having to be constantly alert, they would need a much deeper understanding of the autonomous car’s capabilities and limitations to be effective in such situations.

These are important insights for the evolution of autonomous vehicles. They have direct implications on the way that driverless vehicles are conceptualized and for the legal frameworks. Current driverless car laws are are based on the idea that a human is in control or should be able to take over immediately in critical situations. The reality will be different. The laws will need to address truly autonomous operation (where no occupant can be held liable for the car’s operation).

Reimer proposes to increase human-centered research and developoment to improve the interface between driver and autonomous vehicle. But it is hard to see how this could overcome the dilemma he has sketched. Improving the autonomous capabilities of these cars to the point where they perform verifiably better than almost all human drivers seems to be the only realistic alternative.

Chinese company to commercialize driverless cars?

CarNewsChina reported yesterday based on article in China Daily that a cooperation between China’s First Auto Works ( a commercial car manufacturer) and the National University of Defense may lead to the introduction of commercial driverless cars in China. There is no more specific information about this effort, but China has been accelerating its research in this area.

It would make much sense for this country to invest early into driverless technology. Driverless cars have many benefits: besides fewer accidents and lower mobility costs because of car-sharing, they also use road networks more efficiently and thus could greatly reduce the enormous investment needs for building up the traffic infrastructure in this large country.






European robot trials showcase autonomous technology

Every year robot trials are conducted in Europe (‘European Land Robot Trials’). The event alternates from year to year between military (M-ELROB) and civilian scenarios (C-ELROB). This years military-oriented event took place Thun, Switzerland from Sept 24 to 28.

14 teams participated performing a variety of autonomous and partiallly autonomous tasks including intelligent surveying and reconaissance, follow-the leader, transport and mine detection.

A German autonomous car prototype based on a Volkswagen Touareg developed by the Universität der Bundeswehr in Munich participated in some of the trials.The MuCAR-3 Рshown below has participated in several previous ELROB trials with great success. This time, however, the prototype did not perform quite as well and did not take home any prizes. One reason for slower than usual progress in the past year may have been changes within the research team. It will be interesting to see what the team, which focuses on all-terrain navigation and driving, will be able to showcase next year.




Sergey Brin on driverless car future

Californias driverless car law was signed by Governor Brown at Googles headquarters last week. During the ceremony, Sergey Brin talked about Google’s driverless car efforts.

Some highlights:
– Brin expects driverless cars to be available to the public in not more than 6 years
– Driverless cars to become available for testing to a larger subset of Google employees within one year
– Safety continues to be the core issue. Google is looking at all issues including hardware failures, tires blowing out, electronics failures, etc.
– Three pronged approach to testing: a) actual driving on the road, b) lab testing, c) testing on closed circuits
– Google working on improving the sensor arrangements (It would be interesting to know whether they have found ways to reduce the dependence on the extremely expensive LIDAR)
– Google does not intend to manufacture vehicles
– Google intends to work with partners in commercializing the technology
– Driverless cars will greatly reduce the waste of land for parking spaces because driverless cars can drop someone of and then transport another passenger (reading between the lines, this was the only hint about the business model which Google may follow. Fewer parking lots also means fewer privately owned cars and an increasing share of trips using driverless taxi service (think: ‘Google mobile’ (Brin did not use this term!)).
– Nobody else is as far ahead as Google in this field.

Below is a video of the signing event: