Monday Musing - How realistic is a world of completely autonomous cars?

There’s so much hype and speculation about autonomous vehicles (AVs) that there probably isn’t a day that goes by without an article on the latest developments or survey results on what people really think about them.  But the truth is that although AVs exist they are still very much in the test phase. I don’t know about you, but when I heard that a woman had been killed by an autonomous Uber car in Arizona last March, I thought that these cars were much further along than they were. I am not alone.  According to a recent Euro NCAP and Thatcham study, 71 percent of drivers surveyed thought AVs were already on the market.

Self driving car man

Notwithstanding the ethics of testing a fully autonomous car on a public road, the thought of an AV is undeniably fascinating.  It is amazing that we are capable of designing and building such a machine, but it has been a step by step process not an overnight success.  For all the attention the likes of Google, Uber and Tesla get, the mainstream car manufacturers have been including autonomous features one at a time, such as stability control and anti-locking brakes, over decades.  Some developments are in response to road traffic accidents and provide enhanced safety and peace of mind for drivers, while others offer additional performance value.  As consumers we do expect a new car to be better, safer and more luxurious than its predecessor.

An AV must by definition have many more features as standard, such as sensors and cameras just to function.  These features replace human actions.  Everything a human does has to be replicated and told what to do, things that a human will learn to do quicker than a computer and perform automatically.  Cameras will see lane markings, road signs and traffic lights, and radar measures objects.  All this information is combined to build a picture that as a veteran motorist you will be already be familiar with.  The autonomous car will have a prediction module that will forecast how objects such as cars, bicycles and pedestrians will behave and how the car should respond.  However, not even a human knows what another human would do most of the time, much less be able to predict it!   And this is where the transition between fun and reality begins to look unlikely.

According to AXA Insurance, 90% of road traffic accidents are caused by human error.  That sounds far too obvious.  Human intervention occurs in every aspect from driving to maintenance so errors will almost always be human in one form or another.  It would be folly to assume that there will be zero accidents in future.

The RAC Foundation has just published a joint study with the University of Nottingham entitled “How will drivers interact with the vehicles of the future?”  The study focused on driver interaction with an AV using a simulator.  It found that the more distracted a person was while the car was fully automated, such as reading a book and listening to music, took them longer to regain control of the AV when it asked them to take over within a 10 second period.  In fact, their driving was much worse after automation than it was before, both in terms of speed and lane changing on a motorway.  One does not need to hazard a guess that the RACF and academics are worried by these findings.

The benefits of partial autonomy such as assisted parking are undeniably welcome to someone who has experienced other people’s bad parking, but not all cars have it.  Practice makes perfect they say and this comes with a free added bonus – that fuzzy feeling of satisfaction for personal achievement!  It is not unreasonable to expect progress to total autonomy, but there is another problem.  AVs are not yet fully knowledgeable of the rules of the road.

In order to navigate without you, the AV needs to learn the Highway Code, know every road marking and on-street sign.  To add to the complexity, not all road markings that look the same mean the same, and many Traffic Regulation Orders are only written on paper.  Consequently, an enormous amount of work has yet to be done to get these Orders digitised.

The problem that electric vehicle development poses for infrastructure is that each car has its own unique connection and this has alerted parking professionals to the need for digitising our ‘road rules’ into a single set of data standards to avoid confusion and clutter.  However, the standard still has to be agreed.  The British Parking Association, the International Parking & Mobility Institute in America and the European Parking Association have joined forces to create the Alliance for Parking Data Standards, which will create a standard to enable AVs to disseminate traffic orders and make sure they park responsibly, if they ever make it onto the market that is.