“It’s not just about technology, dude!” - The human ingredients to make autonomous cars successful

October 11, 2016
Holger G. Weiss
self driving cars

The excitement about the automated car – aka autonomous aka self-driving car – is unstoppable. While few years ago only some industry insiders and nerds discussed about automated systems that will be part of our urban traffic tomorrow, it has now turned into a mainstream topic.

The reason is simple: The automated car has become a reality.

As usual if tech trends turn super popular, Silicon Valley is involved. Google is pushing with its fleet of cars running in and around the Silicon Valley, General Motors is stepping up its game through acquiring specialist company Cruise Automation from San Francisco and Tesla grabbed headlines, when they recently announced that their cars can run autonomously already today.

Fact is that many of today’s high-end cars have systems on board that already allow certain autonomous behaviour – such as auto-control of breaking, cruise control, lane control etc. A modern high end car can today manage to cruise at high speed and come to a complete stop before it would smash into the last car of a traffic jam.

But for truly self-driving cars the ultimate goal is not to have certain functions taken over by the computer, but to drive the car completely independently from any interaction with a ‘driver’.  Many of the case studies of car makers have front seats that can be turned 180° around to face the rear seats.

The assumption is that people can talk, read or watch while the car is moving. There is no human attention needed – at least not with respect to the car’s movement.

On automotive and tech conferences there is always one dominant question – when will a fully automated car become reality on our streets, with many vehicles by different car manufacturers and of different sizes etc.? Not like the Google fleet today, which is being monitored in a lab-like testing field and which is not driving any faster than 30km/h. The answer to this question usually varies between 5 and 20 years. It seems that most people consider the technical challenge the main hurdle to be overcome - followed by legal issues such as the question, if a computer can be held responsible for creating an accident.

The electrical vehicle (EV) is in a similar state: the technology is mature (if we can agree for batteries that a range of 400 kilometres is sufficient…). There are many reasons to buy an EV today, but the overall number of EV’s does not take off so far. Consumers don’t appreciate the advantages and they consider a conventional car still more convenient.

The same is true for the autonomous car. The AAA (American Automotive Association) found in a recent study that almost 40% of all people don’t even want features in their cars as they are described above. They don’t trust technology, they believe they can drive better than a system or they just state that it’s annoying.

The same study also said that 75% of all motorists would be afraid of using a fully automated car, and only 20% would be comfortable to be chauffeured by a computer.

There are more studies that show the same picture and they all have in common that they look from a motorist’s point of view. However, one perspective hasn’t been discussed so far extensively, which will play a major role with respect to acceptance and breakthrough of fully automated vehicles – the society in general.

Looking back to the end of the 19th century we find a similar setting. Motor vehicles were about to replace horse carriages on the street. In some countries (interestingly Germany as well), the overall acceptance of the new technology was not too positive. They were considered dangerous, smelly and even more important, they scared the horses by being so noisy. There also will be major reluctance with regard to fully autonomous cars on our streets.

Getting a whole nation to accept that a system, which is controlled by computers, but can easily kill people, will not be easy.

How to explain for example that the ‘algorithm of death’ will have to decide one day, which person has to be injured or even killed to avoid larger collateral damage?

There are several reasons for adoption of autonomous cars and most likely the rate of acceptance and adoption will vary from country to country. While Germany for example is a country of inventors and its wealth is also built on technology, people in Germany are in general not early movers if it comes to consumer tech. The older people get, the more reluctant they are to do so.  It’s different in the US. Sitting in an airport lounge somewhere in the States, almost every one of the generation 60+ is reading, surfing browsing with a smartphone, tablet or e-reader.  And other areas of the world will have a higher pressure to introduce autonomous vehicles such as China with its mega-cities or India.

The question could be if the political will or the demand of the industry can be enforced against the people i.e. voters? The current discussion about storage of data, usage of data and safe harbour agreements, show a massive gap between the US and Europe for example. In the case of the connected car, data also will play a major role. And the analogy can be extended even further – in the same way how certain data standards will slow down innovation, it also might happen to autonomous cars.

The question if a European scepticism for innovation will mean long-term a risk to its automotive industry is a reasonable discussion to have.

Computers will drive better and they will be safer than human drivers. But it will take the period of one generation probably to establish this understanding. What does it imply for the self-driving car? It will happen in several steps: public transport and related systems (point to point services) will be first. It’s easier to install dedicated bus lanes etc. On highways it will be possible to use dedicated lanes for a fully automated ride including a reading-a-book-while-driving-experience. But a city where all mobility will be fully automated is still a bit away. Not (only) because of the technology, but mainly because of the people who will have to live with.

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