Race to automation: Google and carmakers take different roads in pursuing self-drive technology
Different routes in the race toGoogle and carmakers are pursuing self-drive technology, but differ in their views on how much control a human should have at the wheel
From his laboratory at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon University, automated vehicle pioneer Raj Rajkumar says self-driving cars will evolve step-by-step, with humans staying in charge for a long time to come.
More than 4,000km west in Mountain View, California, Chris Urmson, head of Google's self-driving car programme since 2009, has a different view: A fully automated vehicle that requires no input or intervention from humans is a safer choice, and one that could be ready for production by 2020.
Partially automating a car can reduce certain accident risks, but can also create new challenges not easily solved by current technology. Urmson, one of Rajkumar's former colleagues at Carnegie Mellon, said he worried drivers could botch the handover when an automated system demands they start making decisions about where to steer.
"The better the technology gets," he said, "the less reliable the driver is going to get."
Google's all-in approach differs from the car industry's strategy on autonomous vehicle technology that will manifest itself in vehicles consumers can buy over the next two to three years.
Mainstream carmakers General Motors and Volkswagen AG and newcomer Tesla Motors are pushing down the road to automation outlined by Rajkumar. They are accelerating plans to bring automated driving to the market in stages, starting as early as this year. A small group of Tesla owners is testing its "Autopilot" system that will allow hands-free highway cruising and automated parking. Tesla said it expected to offer the technology more widely later this year.
Technology that allows a car to park itself is already on the market, and a growing number of vehicles are equipped with systems that automatically apply the brakes, correct the steering or maintain a set distance from a vehicle ahead in the lane.
The carmakers' rush to partially automated driving is moving faster than regulators can prescribe new rules of the road. Some experts - Urmson is one - are concerned drivers may not respond well to cars that let them surrender control for long stretches.
Alerting a driver to retake control during an emergency was one of the biggest safety challenges for manufacturers of partially automated cars, industry officials and scientists said.
Depending on the level of automation and intensity of alert, some drivers took an average of 17 seconds to respond to a takeover request and regain control, in a study released by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and supported by Google and several leading carmakers and suppliers.
In that time, a car travelling at 96km/h would travel more than 400 metres.
Time to respond and regain control was reduced to just a few seconds when visual and audible warnings were accompanied by non-visual alerts such as a nudge from a mechanism in the seat.
But "there were alerts that were missed" by some study participants, the NHTSA said. When drivers shift their attention to other tasks in a self-driving vehicle, such as sending an email, "their readiness to respond to driving-related prompts and alerts can be delayed".
There's value in "driver assistance" features such as brakes that engage automatically when the car's sensors detect an imminent crash, Urmson said. But a fully automated vehicle "can be much safer than a driver assistance system can ever be".
The behaviour of drivers in automated cars is one issue. Another is the interaction between robot cars and those piloted by people. Google's Urmson has highlighted that issue in dissecting the causes of a series of incidents in which the company's self-driving cars were hit by conventional vehicles.
In an August 20 incident, a Google self-driving prototype was rear-ended while stopped for a pedestrian in a crosswalk near the company's Mountain View headquarters.
At the time, the driver of the Google vehicle had taken manual control after the car had begun to automatically brake for the pedestrian. Urmson speculated that the driver of the other vehicle might have glanced away while changing lanes.
Unresolved questions aren't stopping carmakers and automotive suppliers from cashing in on partial automation, in part because the incremental approach promises more revenue in the near term than keeping technology in the lab.
Semi-automated driver assistance systems are expected to add US$3,000 or more to the cost of cars. There are no consistent estimates on the cost of a fully automated vehicle.
The entire car industry is waiting for highway safety regulators at the NHTSA to clarify their position on Tesla's Autopilot and similar technology.
"The agency is in regular contact with the many companies that are developing such technologies, and we are working with all of them to help ensure that these innovations realise their safety potential," the NHTSA said.
In July, NHTSA chief Mark Rosekind said the agency was reviewing federal vehicle safety rules that could affect self-driving vehicles.
"We are trying to figure out if innovation will run up against regulations," he said.