Will self-driving cars become a reality or not? The debate grows stronger by the day. Technology companies such as Google say fully autonomous cars could be commercially available as early as 2018. More cautious forecasters peg the timeframe at 2025.
Skeptics still insist the idea is a pipedream: Product liability and other issues could prevent large-scale adoption of driverless vehicles from ever taking over public roads.
If there is a sure bet in all this speculation, it is so-called semi-autonomous vehicles being offered for sale in five years.
Semi-autonomous systems allow cars and trucks to perform 90% of driving duties without human intervention, but still require a driver to deal with the most perilous and unpredictable situations, such as other drivers behaving dangerously.
That means drivers will be free to do many things behind the wheel they can’t do now, but they still will assume responsibility for controlling the car.
Safety systems supplier TRW and its technology partner Mobileye make a compelling case for this more measured – and believable – approach to self-driving vehicles at the supplier’s new global electronics technical center in Farmington Hills, MI.
With $16.4 billion in sales last year, 90% related to vehicle safety systems, TRW speaks with authority in judging what realistically can be achieved in enabling mass-produced vehicles to navigate public roads safely.
TRW designs and manufactures all the radar, camera, electric power steering and electronic stability control components required for semi-autonomous driving. Mobileye develops the software that makes them work: computer-vision algorithms and chip technology for driving- assistance systems.
TRW says the hardware will be ready by 2018, and Mobileye says so will the software. More importantly, they both say the technology will be affordable to auto makers and consumers.
Mobileye Chief Technology Officer Amnon Shashua says key visual technologies for recognizing animals, potholes, new street signs and traffic lights will be ready for launch in just a year or two, followed by emergency steering and self-driving components.
Shashua is confident these technologies will enable vehicles to steer and brake appropriately even in spontaneous situations, such as children stepping into the road from between parked cars or a deer leaping in front of a vehicle.
However, he says sensing technology still has limits. Cameras can have trouble recognizing a speeding vehicle approaching at an oblique angle in an erratic or reckless manner, he says.
Like it or not, drivers will be giving up more and more control to automatic vehicle safety systems. Some cars already incorporate adaptive cruise-control features and automatic emergency braking. More are coming.
Governments all over the world are enacting stricter rules to reduce traffic deaths and injuries. So far, Japan and Europe have done a much better job of reducing fatalities than the U.S.
According to data compiled by TRW, from 2001 to 2010, Japan reduced traffic fatalities 44% and Europe achieved a reduction of 43% while U.S. fatalities declined only 22% during the same period.
Now, after years of steadily declining, U.S. traffic fatality rates are climbing again. Driver distraction issues are getting much of the blame. According to a National Highway Traffic Safety Admin. study, 80% of crashes and 65% of near crashes are caused by driver distraction.
Active safety systems already are proven to save lives and mitigate driver distraction. The U.S. government is expected to begin mandating their installation beginning around 2018.
Self-driving vehicles sound attractive to many, but if you have to make a serious bet on where the automotive market is going in high-volume, it is best to look at what will be required by future government regulations, what will be affordable and what will not resemble an economic stimulus package for trial lawyers.
All these signs point to proliferation of semi-autonomous, not self-driving vehicles in the next five to 10 years.