A few weeks ago I was at the Financial Times Car Summit 2018 in London. This year’s most favourite topic was autonomous driving.
What will happen in the future? Are we going to drive cars or they will drive by themselves? How can we trust computers? Will the joy of driving be gone?
These were some of the questions raised during the sessions and the coffee breaks. There was one thing in common in every conversation – autonomous driving is coming and it is extremely hard to resist.
I would like to start covering this topic from my point of view and based on the feedback I heard from people. Personally, I really love the idea of autonomous driving. When I first read about the Mercedes-Benz S-Class’s (W220) radar-guided cruise control function in 1998 (I was 17 at that time), I was very excited about the idea.
It was called Distronic and, in the modern world, it is prehistoric. Even a Lego Technics car can offer this technology now. Back in those days, it was an amazing feature. A car drives by itself; basically it brakes and accelerates using front-facing radar.
Years have passed and autonomous driving has started to appear on every manufacturer’s option list. I mean semi-autonomous driving, and mostly up to level 2. This means that you have to hold the steering wheel and be in charge, whilst the car is partially driving itself.
It is an amazing feature. When you consider the daily stop-and-go traffic, you cannot enjoy the driving experience. Regardless of the horsepower under your bonnet, you are only travelling a little bit faster than a bicycle. Under these conditions, autonomous driving takes over. Why should I be controlling the car when I’m travelling at extremely slow speeds. The car should be doing this. It is a serious waste of brain power. Hopefully, you can do this with most of the cars available on the market.
Actually, the Audi A8 offers level 3 autonomous driving. This mean that you can take selfies whilst the A8 drives by itself up to 60 km/h on the road.
As I mentioned motorways, that’s another place autonomous driving should take place. Think of the last time you were driving on a motorway and there were no cars. Basically there was nothing, but you still had to concentrate on driving. Again, at times like that, the car should be handling the ride.
There are lots of conditions when the car should be driving instead of being driven.
For some people, it is against the passion they have for driving. We really like changing gears, controlling the throttle and enjoying every bit of the driving experience. However, times are changing, and people now find driving less exciting. Traffic congestion, accidents and many more adverse situations make us move away from pleasure in the driving experience.
Also, you can do other thing instead of driving. A 3-hour journey in the car means, 3 hours of not checking out social media channels and avoiding messages.
We are more connected than ever before in human history. We check out news quickly, consume it and forget it. According to Spotify, we judge a new song by listening for less than 10 seconds before skipping it. We don’t really give it a second chance. The side effect of the Fourth Industrial Revolution is that we consume everything quickly. Consequently, being disconnected from the digital world is not an option for everyone.
Whether we like it or not, autonomous driving is coming, but will we like it?
Level 5 autonomous driving will be fully automated driving. You just get inside the car and tell it or type where you want to travel to. The rest will be done by computer. Until it breaks down as the result of a bug or is hacked by your silly friend! Also, you will be restricted to roads. You can’t even do a tiny bit of off-road experience with your latest Range Rover, even with level 5 autonomous driving. This is because off-road areas are already pre-defined.
It will be hard to explain this to the car. I just want to drive to look around, or I want to go around Harrods 28 times today, to slow down in front of the doors and then to accelerate rapidly around the rest of the building.
Level 5 autonomous driving is a bit surrealistic for this era, but it will happen. Lots of people will buy cars without having a driving license, and the traffic jams will be more epic than ever. Analogue cars and level 5 cars will share the same roads and the congestion will be worse than ever. Many people will be afraid of getting inside a level 5 car because, some newspaper will cover the front-page with a horror story of a level 5 car that has never happened.
However, we will still need the level 5 car, but how? Imagine an alternative highway to the existing ones. When you wish to travel from Birmingham to London you will go to the station and pick up any car that’s available to travel to London.
This car will use a road that can’t be accessed by any other type of vehicle. As a result, level 5 cars can speed up and travel to London safely with the other vehicles. In addition, in the event of a breakdown, the other vehicles can couple with the broken-down car and keep everything moving without any interruptions.
People will love it, because it will be safe. The level 5 car can’t go crazy and drive along a random road. If something goes wrong, you can easily stop the car on the autonomous motorway. Congestion won’t increase because the level 5 cars will be using a different route.
It will be extremely hard to change all the cars on this planet in one night and turn them into fully autonomous cars. The transition period will be really long.
So, will I still be driving as I do today? Perhaps! Remember, airplanes fly by autopilot during most of the flight. However, if the autopilot thinks ‘I don’t understand what’s going on’ it tells the pilot ‘Now you have the controls’. This has worked really well for a very long time. Please watch the movie “Sully”.
There are too many variables in daily driving, even sometimes ones that we can’t understand. Although computers will get smarter, they will always need a human hand to find a solution. Also, people will trust a car with a human being inside that can control the steering. Imagine what you will do if you see a car driving by itself and you are about to cross the road.
Most probably, the car will be kinder than most drivers and give way. However, how we can understand or be sure that the car will give way?
Autonomous driving is inevitable. However it is very important to understand human behaviour. A level 5 car can be the best driver on this planet but if people don’t trust it, there won’t be any feasible applications. People will still prefer good old cars with pedals and a steering wheel.
The automotive industry should focus on the behavioural science aspect of autonomous driving. How they can convince people to trust a level 5 car? What architecture should be developed to create a comfortable transition from the analogue car to the level 5 car. Unfortunately, the technology and the behavioural science applications are not travelling at the same speed. First the technology arrives and then the behavioural part is developed. However, this time, with the introduction of autonomous cars, behavioural science should be travelling at the same speed to make things easier and smoother for people.
The photos above are the Rolls-Royce’s future level 5 autonomous car concept, 103EX.