If I had to mark the beginning of my obsession with autonomous vehicles it would be the summer of 2004 when a much younger version of myself forked over my hard-earned money for a ticket to see I, Robot, the sci-fi flick starring Will Smith loosely inspired by author Isaac Asimov’s short-story collection of the same name. But it wasn’t the robot servants that had my jaw on the floor; it was Mr. Smith’s drop dead gorgeous Audi that looked like it was hand-crafted by celestial beings with intelligence light years beyond our own. Oh, and it could drive itself!
Fast forward to today and autonomous vehicle technology is on the verge of becoming reality. Right?
A road not yet paved
I recently had a chance to discuss with Jim Pisz, Toyota’s Corporate Manager, North American Business Strategy, about autonomous vehicle tech and the message I got from him was loud and clear: It’s going to be some time before folks like you and I can hop in a car and let it drive us to work while we sip our soy lattes and answer emails.
It’s going to be some time before folks like you and I can hop in a car and let it drive us to work while we sip our soy lattes and answer emails.
No, it’s not so much that the technology isn’t up to snuff; the tech is certainly there. Just look at the Google Car, which is based on Toyota and Lexus cars. It has millions of lines of code churning through its brain. And it’s packed with more GPS and radar sensors than NASA has down in Houston.
Audi, too, has its own autonomous vehicle research program, as does GM. And let’s not forget Toyota/Lexus’ own LS-based Advanced Active Safety Research Vehicle it showed off earlier this year in Vegas.
Clearly there’s no lack for research efforts or money being thrown at this emerging market. But according to Pisz, there are a number of factors, starting with a lack of infrastructure and the need for large databases, delaying worldwide adoption of driverless vehicles.
“We’re now beginning to see there is a different kind of infrastructure needed in the future and cities may or may not be able to adapt to it,” says Pisz.
“The big promise of autonomous driving used to be that cities, if you look back at the 60s and 70s, people said ‘oh yeah we will put magnetic strips in the road and cars can follow these magnetic strips,”’it’s just a matter of tearing up the roads and putting them in there. Then the economic realities of the early 2000’s hit and now there is no chance of the government tearing up the roads to put some sort of guidance system there for autonomous vehicles – it’s just not going to happen.”
Thus the autonomous crusade fell to manufacturers who were forced to turn to radar, lasers, and high definition cameras and GPS, which ultimately led to the Google car and Toyota/Lexus’ own manufactured research vehicle.
Lack of data
Of course, lack of infrastructure is not a new phenomenon; it’s something the automotive industry is facing today when it comes to battery-powered electric vehicles, or BEVs, as car folks call them. Right now, there just aren’t enough chargers sprinkled around to make driving long distance in a BEV a practical reality.
… there is a different kind of infrastructure needed in the future and cities may or may not be able to adapt to it
As Pisz explains, “Theoretically you would think that OEMs that have the capability of building autonomous vehicles without having to tear up the infrastructure of the streets could solve some of this problem. But in reality, to solve the problems of city and urban congestion, you need to solve one major problem and that is parking.”
In fact, a recent Texas A&M study shows that in dense urban areas, consumers waste 30 to 40 percent of their gasoline just circling looking for parking. And considering how autonomous vehicles are all about convenience – that just won’t fly.
“One of the major benefits of autonomous driving is a car that can take you to your office or restaurant, drop you off then take off by on its own and find a parking spot,” Pisz explains. “But the one fallacy to that is that you need to have a gigantic database of all open parking spots for that wish to come true.”
Tech we can trust?
Beyond massive silos of data and cityscapes built to accommodate driverless cars, Pisz believes self-piloted vehicles will struggle to attract interest due to a lack of trust from consumers.
Using Toyota’s own hybrid vehicle technology as an example, Pisz explains how Toyota only recently sold its five millionth hybrid vehicle globally. And even a much less controversial technology such as the Prius’ powertrain has taken 17 years to achieve a 3 to 4 percent market share, leaving the remaining 96 percent of cars powered by traditional internal combustion engine.
Of course, the adoption curve for any new technology can take time, but Pisz does bring up a good point: Once autonomous vehicles at the consumer level start entering the road, it’s not as if everyone will just hand in the keys to their old cars and buy one.
“Theoretically, I ask the question, ‘can you have an autonomous world when the majority of vehicles are non-autonomous?’ If I’m driving an autonomous vehicle am I willing to put the trust of my life and my family’s life to the vehicle when I know that there are other non-autonomous vehicles out there that could crash into me? This area of trust is really a critical one… from a technological perspective I trust my Android phone just about all the time to get my contact list. But would I completely trust an autonomous vehicle with my life; it’s a different level of trust that has to be achieved.”
Trust issues aside, I’m not convinced comparing hybrid powertrain technology to autonomous vehicle technology is entirely fair. I believe the benefits or driverless driving outweigh the risk tremendously, so much so that consumers would be willing to put their trust and faith in the technology.
As I pointed out in my conversation with Pisz, hybrid technologies are great for getting better fuel economy and increasing levels of eco-smugness ( just teasing, hybrid drivers), but a world filled with fully autonomous vehicles is a much more dramatic dream, allowing for many more tangible benefits to individuals and society as a whole. We’re talking reducing and possibly even wiping out accident-related fatalities, reducing urban congestion, increased mobility for the elderly, disabled and so on.
If you’re even remotely excited about a future where you don’t have to tirelessly sit in traffic and you are able to use the time your daily commute swallows up for more productive things, I’m sure Pisz’s thoughts come off as a major downer. But while it’s easy to mistake these ideas as those of a pessimistic person who doesn’t believe in the technology, Pisz is very much excited about autonomous vehicles and hopes Toyota, among all the others, can deliver on the promises the technology presents.But my unbridled optimism is undercut by Pisz’s grounded skepticism. While we have the means to achieve autonomous driving, he’s not so sure we’re ready to implement it safely when taking into account unexpected variables. As Pisz says, “If you are on a hill and you hit black ice and your car goes down the hill sideways, I don’t know that you can write an algorithm for that. If you are riding into a construction zone and a guy jumps out with the red flag, that becomes difficult to write an algorithm for.”
As Pisz puts it, “I want to say that my comments are reality based but I believe the dream of autonomous is worth chasing. There are so many things that can be accomplished that make all the work in front of us worthwhile.”