The first wave of driverless car technology is nearly ready to hit the mainstream — but some carmakers and tech companies no longer seem so eager to make the leap.
The change in mood has been evident this week at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, which has become an annual showcase for the technologies transforming the auto industry.
Two years ago, Audi executives used CES to tout the imminent launch of the first car designed, under certain circumstances, to take full control away from the driver. In driverless mode, the high-end A8 would only call on the driver to get involved if it encountered a situation too complex for it to handle — a degree of autonomy known as “Level 3”.
Level 3 would be the first point at which full responsibility — and legal liability — shifts from driver to car. But regulators have been wary about whether transferring control between car and driver can work effectively in an emergency, and the Audi software has never been activated in cars sold in the US.
At CES this week, the German carmaker was no longer boasting about its advances in automated driving. Instead, it was one of several companies to unveil a new industry group called Pave. Audi’s president of North American operations Mark Del Rosso said the group’s aim was to “educate policymakers” about how the “technical challenges of creating driverless vehicles are solvable”, and bring real advances in road safety.
The carmakers may wish they had acted earlier to put their education and safety agendas ahead of the technology race that has characterised the rush towards autonomous vehicles. The debate has intensified after a woman was killed in Arizona last March by a self-driving Uber vehicle.
“It’s a level of autonomy that scares the carmakers — but it also scares lawmakers and regulators,” Chris Jones, an auto analyst at Canalys, said of the looming Level 3 threshold.
Mike Ramsay, an analyst at Gartner, agreed, saying that technology was no longer the limiting factor.
“The regulatory framework is a problem far more in need of ironing out than any of these systems,” he said. “There will have to be some clarity about what is legal and what isn’t.”
Carmakers caught up in race to Level 3
The idea of a driverless car that can hand back control to a human with little warning has always divided the auto industry. Carmakers such as Toyota, Volvo and Ford, as well as Waymo, which began life as Google’s driverless car project, have been consistently sceptical about the idea of Level 3, arguing it is safer to wait longer for more advanced forms of automation that never require human intervention.
Daimler Trucks, the world’s biggest maker of commercial vehicles, also turned its back on Level 3 this week. Critics like Martin Daum, the company’s chief executive, said that the technology sent a confusing message to drivers: they are encouraged to switch their attention to something other than the road, but expected to be ready to retake control at a moment’s notice.
Other executives, however, remain bullish on the technology. Dirk Wisselmann, senior engineer at BMW, said the carmaker’s iNext vehicle in 2021 will feature Level 3 technology enabling hands-free, pedal-free driving. He envisions a driver watching movies while the car cruises down the highway, and it would only alert the driver to retake control in the case of a construction zone or particularly bad weather. “If the driver doesn’t take over, the car makes a safe stop,” he said.
Despite the differences of opinion, many carmakers have nevertheless found themselves caught up in a race to Level 3. That has been particularly true for producers of the most expensive luxury cars, where ever-higher levels of driver assistance and automation, like adaptive cruise control, collision avoidance and lane-holding on highways, have started to seem standard. Many see the next, inevitable step as full automation, even if only in limited circumstances like highway driving or while in traffic jams.
The race has been stoked by Elon Musk, chief executive of Tesla, who has made this one of his company’s main goals. Mr Jones at Canalys estimates that “well over two-thirds” of Tesla customers pay $5,000 for the company’s Autopilot software, its current, lower level of driver assistance — a sign of how it has made advanced technology synonymous with its brand. Mr Musk may be years behind in his promise of full autonomy, but rivals have had little choice but to try to match him, said Gartner’s Mr Ramsay.
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On the cusp of Level 3, however, the focus at CES this week shifted to less ambitious — and less controversial — goals, such as enhancing the technology but stopping short of the all-important handover of responsibility.
This will lead to “extending the envelope” of today’s driver-assistance systems, said Erez Dagan, a senior executive at Mobileye, an Israeli company that was acquired by Intel in 2017 and supplies many carmakers.* The new capabilities include bringing the kind of lane-holding common on highways to urban streets and roads with poor lane markings, and teaching cars how to navigate through complex junctions.
But this could turn out to be an expensive detour for carmakers. Today’s driver assistance systems require only simple hardware like a front-facing camera for automated braking. Extending their capabilities to more complex situations means adding rear-facing cameras and sensors like radar and lidar that can build up a picture of everything happening around a car. It also means adding to the processing power and software in order to integrate and make sense of all the new data.
Mr Dagan said it was questionable whether customers would stomach this big step-up in costs if it brought only small incremental improvements.
A second shift in emphasis at CES has been a focus on new safety applications, as the industry makes a renewed effort to persuade customers and regulators that driverless technology is ready for the mass-market.
Amnon Shashua, head of Mobileye, said that surrounding cars with sensors and arming them with detailed road maps could give them the ability to detect when road conditions are about to get dangerous. That could lead to a new form of “predictive braking”, with cars slowing themselves gradually as risks increase, reducing or even eliminating rear-end collisions.
“We all have a moral obligation to apply automated vehicle technology to save as many lives as possible as soon as possible,” said Gill Pratt, head of Toyota Research Institute.
The Japanese carmaker, which will introduce the crash-averting “Guardian” feature to its cars from 2020, was earlier than most to make heightened safety features the goal of its first efforts in driverless technology.
But with the transition to Level 3 automation running into problems, it is an approach that more in the industry are starting to take to heart.
Additional reporting by Peter Campbell in London and Patrick McGee in Frankfurt
Groups bet on ‘vehicle-to-everything’ tech
While self-driving cars promise to make drastic inroads on injuries and fatalities caused by road accidents, the auto and tech industries say technology short of the fully autonomous will also have a dramatic effect on improving safety.
Cellular “vehicle-to-everything technology”, or C-V2X, has been the big feature of auto announcements at CES 2019, with companies saying it will help reduce the 1.35m deaths and injuries on the roads worldwide each year and cut congestion.
C-V2X allows vehicles to communicate with one another, pedestrians and transport infrastructure, such as traffic lights. The technology means cars can sense the intent of other vehicles, be alerted to pedestrians about to cross the road and learn and react to problems ahead and out of sight.
Ford announced at CES on Monday that all its vehicles would incorporate C-V2X in its 2022 calendar year, becoming the first manufacturer to make such a commitment. Presentations by Qualcomm, Samsung and LG also featured C-V2X. The standard will be incorporated in smartphones and in-car systems and dashboards being developed by the tech companies, and its deployment will be aided by new 5G wireless networks being installed.
Chris Nuttall in Las Vegas
*This article has been amended from the original to correct the position of Erez Dagan, who is a senior executive at the company.