Home Cars The drive for autonomous cars is gathering momentum

The drive for autonomous cars is gathering momentum

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Traffic was its congested usual this week, so I popped Drive’s test car into pilot mode with the tap of a button on the steering wheel. Volvo’s latest SUV assumed acceleration and braking duties, steering the car within its lanes to maintain progress and a safe gap to the car in front.

In a way, self-driving cars are already here.

Technology in cutting-edge models straddles the present and future as the automotive industry, legislators, academics and motorists grapple with the reality of autonomous cars.

Dozens of vehicles already offered by luxury brands such as Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz have the ability to handle driving duties in some circumstances, and Tesla is famous for the Autopilot option in its electric cars.

A believer in the role self-driving cars could play in reducing road trauma, Volvo is also at the apex of autonomous driving. The Swedish brand is set to use 100 autonomous cars in a trial will ferry motorists around Gothenburg. A taste of that will hit Sydney in coming weeks as Transport for NSW’s Centre for Road Safety takes delivery of a Volvo XC90 that will help shape research and legislation surrounding self-driving cars.

The drive for autonomous cars is gathering momentum

Bernard Carlon, executive director at the Centre for Road Safety, says the Volvo SUV’s complex array of active driver aids represent “a stepping stone to driverless vehicles in the future”, and that his team will closely examine how they work on Australian roads.

“We want to make sure we understand how driverless vehicles will improve the safety and efficiency of our transport system,” he said.

“We’re also looking at what we need to do to enable trials of more highly automated vehicles in NSW.”

Australia is home to a range of autonomous vehicle research projects. Volvo won headlines as the first car maker to conduct a brief trial on local roads in Adelaide in 2015, Mercedes flew a team from Germany to Melbourne to put its latest tech to the test in 2017, and a trial for lightweight autonomous buses underway in Perth will be joined by a similar project in Sydney this month.

Further trials are likely to emerge as tech firms including Bosch and Codha Wireless work alongside carmakers and authorities to smooth the local introduction of self-driving cars.

The NRMA future of car ownership report released this week suggests “high level autonomous vehicles will arrive in Australia as early as 2020”.

“While there will be fundamental changes to vehicles and associated mobility services, we expect that some level of human interaction with a vehicle will still remain the norm within Australian society up until 2025,” it said.

Responding to the NRMA report, Paul Fletcher, minister for urban infrastructure in the Turnbull Government, said “much remains uncertain” surrounding the introduction of fully autonomous cars.

“We are not yet at the point where driverless vehicles can safely operate on public roads which are also being used by human driven vehicles,” he said.

“Driverless vehicles will transform our society – although views vary as to exactly how quickly they will become dominant.  We need to prepare for this transition – and in Australia as around the world there is plenty of work going on.”

Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz banded together to buy Nokia’s HERE maps service in 2015, predicting that the array of sensors, cameras and lasers on self-driving cars will not be enough to make truly autonomous vehicles a reality.

Mark Whitmore, Australia-based APAC director for HERE, said complex vehicle-to-vehicle and “car to x” communication with traffic lights, advisory signs, speed limits and other road furniture elements is “hugely essential” as “we cannot launch autonomous cars without car-to-car communication”.

A passionate advocate for technology on the road, Whitmore says cars that encounter road hazards could warn following vehicles – both autonomous and human-driven – to be cautious, and that a fire truck or ambulance could get a clean run of green lights all the way to the scene of an emergency, wirelessly guiding cars out of its path.

Those features could slow the introduction of autonomous cars in Australia, as our road network lacks the necessary digital infrastructure.

Dr Jerome Catbagan, traffic and transport planning manager for SMEC consultants, told an Australian Driverless Vehicle Initiative teleconference this week that autonomous vehicles “will be commercially viable in five years and commonplace in 10 to 20 years”, and that road authorities are “not considering this as part of our future transport system when developing long term plans”.

The majority of new cars in the next five to 10 years are likely to look and feel much like cars today, but pod-like driverless vehicles are a possibility for the future.

Several car manufacturers have exhibited cars that resemble wheeled lounge rooms at motor shows around the world, taking the temperature of drivers’ readiness to accept a future without steering wheels.

Professor Mike Regan, chief scientist for human factors at the Australian Road Research Board, led an Australian study of more than 5000 people surrounding their attitudes toward autonomous cars.

Publishing the results in June 2017, Regan found “there was quite a high degree of potential acceptance of these technologies”.

But that comes with a catch.

“People really weren’t ready for a completely autonomous vehicle to drive their kid to school, for example,” Professor Regan said.

“The majority of them, even though vehicles in the future will be totally autonomous, still want the option to flick it into manual mode.”

There lies one of the big questions faced by legislators and car makers – should they allow customers control over cars with self-driving capabilities, and how would that work?

The Society of Automotive Engineers has a widely accepted set of definitions for autonomous cars that run from level zero – no automation – through varying grades of assistance to level five, fully autonomous driving in all situations, all of the time.

Level five cars will not have a steering wheel.

A spokesman for the Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development told Fairfax Media this week that level five cars “are some time away”. David Pickett, certification and engineering manager at Volvo Car Australia believes it will be “decades” before level five cars are viable.

Current models such as the XC90, Mercedes-Benz E-Class and Tesla Model X offer level two assistance, while Audi will usher in level three with its upcoming A8 sedan mid-2018. Insiders say Australian road authorities could limit some of the Audi’s features on local soil.

While level three cars can handle all driving duties for minutes at a time, they require drivers to be able to retake control at a moment’s notice.

Pickett said Volvo will skip level three to offer a level four car in some markets in 2020. He believes level four vehicles may be restricted in autonomous mode to defined areas agreed upon by road authorities and car makers – possibly roads such as Sydney’s M5 Motorway or Melbourne’s Monash Freeway that do not feature complex intersections or vulnerable pedestrians.

The Department of Infrastructure says owners of such cars may need to pass a special driver’s test “demonstrating skills necessary to work with an automated driving system”.

Such a test would require an understanding of the vehicle’s limitations as well as its ultimate capabilities.

Associate Professor Vinayak Dixit is leading an ongoing University of NSW study into how, when and why Australian drivers would hand control to autonomous cars.

His team uses a network of 10 video game-like driving simulators to measure driver perceptions, reaction times and productivity levels on the road.

But it may go further than that.

Dixit said his team will prepare a modified Toyota Yaris and “make sure it is safe” before releasing the car for proposed trials in early 2018.

“The fundamental question we are asking is how people interact with autonomous vehicles,” he said.

“We want to make this vehicle drive around to see how people interact with it.

“We’re keen to make it run on public roads.”

Self-driving cars won’t tire or get drunk, make risky decisions or exceed speed limits. There is immense potential to reduce road trauma while liberating drivers from the monotony of stop-start congestion.

But Dixit warns that the safety qualifications of autonomous cars are not well understood, and that overseas trials of self-driving cars “were found to have significantly high correlation and trends with accidents” – many caused by other motorists.

Regan agrees that it is too early to assume that self-driving cars will consign road deaths to history.

“People say automated vehicles are going to reduce 90 per cent of crashes because 90 per cent of crashes are human errors. I just don’t agree with that,” he said.

“We simply don’t know what sorts of new types of crashes will be created when we have driverless vehicles and automated vehicles.

“We have no idea how it is going to play out.”

 

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