'Ma, can the car take me to gym?'

2012-08-17 07:24

DETROIT, Michigan - It's more than half a century since the first cars with self-driving features were presented to the world. Most are not still on the roads - but their descendants will be soon...

Many auto execs believe the industry is on the cusp of welcoming vehicles that make the idea of keeping both hands on the wheel an anachronism. The common "Ma, can you take me in the car to...?" will become "Ma, can the car can take me to...?"

'Self-drive': A whole new world

General Motors showed off "dream cars" in the late 1950's, among them the Firebird II and Cadillac Cyclone with features automakers are now starting to roll out as the technology, based on sensors, laser, radar, GPS, cameras and microchips improves and becomes less costly.

Few industry mavens see a fully self-driving, or autonomous, vehicle before 2025 though features such as adaptive cruise control and traffic-jam identification that automatically slow a car in certain situations have been in use for several years; anti-lock brakes have been around for 30 years.


"The whole concept of a car being able to drive itself is pretty profound," said Larry Burns, GM's former research and development chief and an adviser for Google's self-driving car project. "This is the most transformational play to hit the auto industry in 125 years."

GM's Firebird II, introduced in 1956, had a system to work with an electrical wire embedded in the highway to guide the car. Three years later, the rocket-like Cyclone had an autopilot that steered the car and radar that warned of an imminent collision and automatically applied the brakes - the latter now in fairly common use.

In a world where Nevada and Florida have already passed laws allowing the licensing of self-driving cars, the rush is on to make the job easier for drivers. For many, the ultimate goal is to take the steering wheel totally out of human hands and eliminate accidents.

"Once we have a car that will never crash, why don't we let it drive?" said Nady Boules, GM's director of autonomous technology development.

However Boules and executives like him will have to win over a public that includes those who love to drive or simply wouldn't trust their lives to a robot. Others, like long-haul truckers, could resist the technology for fear of job losses.


Bryan Reimer, a research scientist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology's AgeLab, was less enthusiastic. "My mental model of trust in technology is a Windows blue screen of death. That's how much faith I have in computers."

Reimer, whose group studies human behaviour in relation to transportation safety and has worked with BMW, Ford and Toyota, said people were terrible overseers of highly autonomous systems and a car that helped drivers rather than replaced them would be a better model.

JD Power and Associates found 37% of Americans surveyed in March 2012 were interested in autonomous driving but only 20% "definitely" or 'probably" would buy one. Consultants Accenture said in 2011 that almost half of American and British people polled would be comfortable in a self-driving car.

Even if the industry eventually wins the the majority of hearts and minds of most, it also must establish the infrastructure that supports self-driving cars, including not only the technology but the necessary legal and liability frameworks - things that may takes years to put in place.

Bill Windsor, associate vice-president of people safety at insurer Nationwide Mutual, pointed out the airline industry has had an autopilot feature for years but people still manned the cockpit. The same would be true of cars. "It's going to be a long time before we  feel comfortable turning over all the day-to-day driving decisions to a computer," he said.

Costs must come down as well. For instance, the laser-based system used by Google costs an estimated R575 000 so the roll-out over the next decade of more semi-autonomous features that assist drivers or take control of cars in only some cases is the path the industry is taking with the idea of preparing humans for a future with fully driverless cars.

John Hanson, Toyota's US manager for environmental, safety and quality issues, asserted: "The socialisation of autonomous driving is actually the difficult part. The invention of the vehicle is the easy part." Toyota has two autonomous-car programmes, one in Japan, the other in Ann Arbor, Michigan.


Even some automakers developing semi-autonomous features for their cars don't believe consumers will accept a future without human drivers. Tom Baloga, BMW's US vice-president of engineering, said : "The days of George Jetson getting in a vehicle, saying 'to the office', and then reading a newspaper...  we don't envision that for an awful long time.

"We will always be the ultimate driving machine," he said, though admitted there will be times when bored drivers stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic would turn over control of their cars. BMW has worked on autonomous technology for more than a decade.

Others developing autonomous technologies include: Honda , Hyundai, Mercedes, Nissan and Volvo, as well as suppliers, technology firms and universities.

KPMG and CAR said in their study: "The industry appears to be on the cusp of revolutionary change... brought on by the advent of autonomous or 'self-driving' vehicles. And the timing may be sooner than you think."

GM, for instance, believes semi-autonomous cars will be available by 2015 with more sophisticated self-driving systems by 2020. Cadillac is testing "Super Cruise", capable of fully automatic steering, braking and lane centreing in certain highway driving that could be ready for production by mid-decade (it already exists in some upmarket cars - Wheels24).

Meanwhile Bill Ford, chairman of rival Ford Motor, sees semi-autonomous driving technology by 2025 like driver-initiated autopilot systems, as well as the ability to reserve parking spots ahead of your destination in a linked network, with fully autonomous cars following after that.

"There's a lot of moving parts to all of this, but it's almost limitless in terms of what we can do," he said in June at an event in California's Silicon Valley.

Ford's 2013 Fusion mid-sized car includes a lane-keeping aid system, self-parking, adaptive cruise control and collision avoidance - as do other cars already.

'Self-drive': A whole new world