TECH TORQUE

DRIVERLESS CARS ARE GOING NOWHERE, FAST.

FRASER STRONACH

IT SEEMS like some of the ‘hot air’ is coming out of the tyres of autonomous or so-called driverless cars. For a good while now much of the mainstream media have been spruiking that the widespread adoption of driverless cars is just around the corner. Back in the early part of this decade when news about driverless cars first started to ramp up it was generally predicted that from 2018on driverless cars would be increasingly commonplace on our roads. That, of course, hasn’t happened, and driverless cars are still restricted to relatively small numbers under trial in various parts of the world. Those ‘driverless’ cars that are being tested on public roads still have a back-up driver onboard should things go wrong, which has happened more than once. Most notably a pedestrian was killed by an Uber self-driving car under trial in the USA in March 2018, despite having a back-up driver onboard.

Now two very influential tech gurus have publically stated what many more cynical observers have been saying for a while, namely that nothing is going to happen in terms of driverless cars anytime soon.

First-up, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak came out in early November and said, “I don’t really believe in auto-driving cars” at this point. “I don’t believe it’s quite possible yet.” Wozniak’s pronouncement is based on his experience with his Tesla car’s ‘Autopilot’ function. “Tesla makes so many mistakes… it really convinces me that an autopiloting and auto-steering car driving itself is not going to happen.”

Perhaps more telling are the comments by John Krafcik, the chief executive of Waymo, the self-driving-car division of Google’s parent, Alphabet, which is generally regarded as the pioneer and now the leader in self-driving technology.

Krafcik said it will be decades before autonomous cars are widespread on the roads, and even then they won’t be able to drive in all weather and in all conditions.

Krafcik said: “It’s really, really hard. You don’t know what you don’t know until you’re actually in there and trying to do things.” That’s a common sentiment from the traditional automakers, many of whom have moved on autonomous cars development in fear of being blindsided by tech companies like Google and missing out on the next ‘big thing’.

In the meantime some of the technology central to driverless cars, such as autonomous emergency braking, distance and lane keeping, speed-sign recognition and 360-degree monitoring, is finding its way into conventional cars to hopefully make them safer. Improved safety is, of course, one of the key arguments behind taking away the responsibility of driving from humans, so if you can install technology that c an help make cars with human drivers safer, some of the rationale behind driverless cars evaporates.

That’s not to say driverless technology doesn’t have its place. Fixed-route shuttle buses and the like seem like a logical place for a start; or in taxis that have defined areas of operation, say in the CBD or tourist precinct of a big city. Limiting where a driverless car needs to operate will make navigation far easier, which is obviously a key element in driverless-car success.