The driverless car conundrum

There are countless articles in both the general and specialist media which start off something like ‘driverless cars are coming’. They all assume that because billions of dollars are being spent on the concept and that the car manufacturers and tech companies keep on saying it, then it will undoubtedly be true.

But will it? The obstacles to the totally driverless future suggested by Waymo, Google’s autonomous car division are legendary. Indeed, no one has explained how we might get there. The promoters of the concept have, in fact, come up against a logical conundrum. They want to portray the technology as a way of enhancing freedom, of giving more people, such as the elderly, the poorly sighted and children, personal mobility in an autonomous vehicle that would be permanently available. But the logical outcome of that would be that there would be many more vehicles on the road exacerbating the problems of congestion, pollution and parking.

Therefore, the autonomous car promoters have responded by saying that there would be fewer cars. How? Well, since cars, they say, are only in use for 5 per cent of the time, then if there were a pool of shared cars, then we would only require far fewer. The logic of this is nonsensical. Most of the cars are used at the same times, getting people to work and school, and back again in the evening.

However, more seriously, that would require a much greater societal change. The cars would need to be electric, shared use and driverless. All three are problematic. While electric cars may grow in popularity, at the moment they have a very small share of the market and there are huge issues in scaling that up, notably the creation of charging points and the world’s capacity for battery production.

Shared use is even more problematic. Would people really be willing to give up their own personal cars in favour of some kind of service that would provide them with a shared vehicle which someone might have vomited in the night before or which may not be available due to high demand. Services such as Zipcar have established a profitable business in many cities, after much initial government support, but even the companies themselves admit that they are unlikely ever to become more than a niche market. There are all sorts of reasons people might want to hang on to their own personal use, even if it is more expensive such as customising (e.g. having baby seats in the back or golf clubs in the boot), one-upmanship (the Jag in the driveway looks cool) and convenience (it is there and you know it is instantly available).

Then there is the concept of driverlessness. We are decades off the availability of any vehicle which can pass the real test of driverlessness, the ability to go anywhere reliably and safely with no human interaction whatsoever. My specific test is to take the kids to school, then return and take the Dad to work and then to an evening football match in a distant town.  This in the parlance is Level 4 or Level 5 of the stages of autonomy and there is no such vehicle anywhere in the world, or anything approaching it, despite the suggestion that is often given to me in conversation which is ‘oh there are driverless cars operating in xxxx’. Well there are not. There are vehicles which are sometimes in autonomous mode which have operators who intervene – even the best vehicles have an intervention rate of once in every 5,000 miles and that is on US type urban grid systems that are geofenced and operate in good weather on established routes.

I went in June to the autonomous vehicle exhibition in Stuttgart to see what progress was being made and I expecting a hostile reception to my scepticism. Quite the opposite.

The exhibitors were nearly all suppliers to the industry, their names mostly an awful mangle of the English language – Velodyne Lidar, Spirent and gestigon – and their products a terrible tangle of acronyms. The exhibitors’ descriptions of what they were selling ranged from the almost prosaic such as little gizmos that connected cars reliably to GPS to the utterly incomprehensible, like the radar testing equipment that was somehow linked to a simulation of a vehicle travelling at great speed on a motorway which was, apparently, much cheaper than the alternative of installing it in a vehicle. There was hardware, too, such as a $300,000 device that contains five cameras and Lidar (a version of radar using laser signals) that can map a road down to the nearest millimetre and numerous providers of ways to help testing, such as Spark, a 500 acre ‘facility’ for testing driverless cars in Michigan that includes a specially made road tunnel to test whether equipment still works underground.

There were, interestingly, very few cars on show and none that were remotely driverless. That is partly because the manufacturers are reluctant to demonstrate their progress or lack of it, but also because there is nothing much to show. The most interesting aspect of the show, however, was that were more predictions of doom than any acceptance that Waymo’s shared driverless future coming to fruition.

The most stark came from Tim Mackey, who styles himself ‘senior technical evangelist’ for Black Duck, a company which specialises in security issues around autonomous vehicles. He is convinced that there is going to be a seminal event that will force all the players in this industry to take note: ‘We have had it in other areas of computing, such as the big data hacks and security lapses, and it will happen in relation to autonomous cars. At the moment, none of the big players are thinking properly about security aspects and then they will be forced to.’ He points to a video showing on another stand where a man is calling up his car from his garage using a phone app: ‘That sort of thing is just too easy to hack. There’s all sorts of software put into cars that is old and easy to access. We just have to hope that the wake up call will be minor and not kill anyone.’ Already, a few years ago, in a test, hackers acting for a company testing out equipment, were able to get hold of a car’s steering and braking system and Mackey is convinced that criminals will one day use the same method.

There was a more general expectation that these suppliers are riding the crest of a wave which will hit the rocks some time soon. While there is no doubting the scale of this industry with billions of dollars being invested every year into developing this technology, none of the OEMs has yet made a single penny from selling a driverless car and there is no expectation that they will any day soon. This money, benefitting these exhibitors, is therefore a punt, a very high stakes bet that there is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. One of them, Johannes, told me: ‘i see a pattern that is like the dotcom boom. At some point, people are going to realise that the day when they start to get returns for their investment is very far off, if ever. Then they will start pulling out and who knows how bad it will get. But the clever money will move somewhere else.’ The bad publicity caused by a couple of deaths in Tesla cars while its ‘Autopilot’ was engaged and by the Uber fatality may be seen as the start of public disenchantment with the concept.

This pursuit of driverless cars is doubly worrying. It is not only crowding out possible other better ways of improving transport, but also stymieing scientific developments. Yet, of the 20 or so exhibitors I spoke to, not a single one believed that this technology would be widely used by the public within a decade. There are a myriad problems ranging from insurance issues and how to address potential conflicts between driverless and conventional cars to the limitations of the technology and the resistance of the public to travel in them. And as more research is conducted, there will be lots of Donald Rumsfeld’s famous unknown unknowns.