Road Ahead

10-Year Horizon Suspect, But Autonomous Vehicles Still Hold Promise

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Fully automated driving may come eventually, but in the meantime the technology’s building blocks could be the ultimate answer to distracted-driving concerns.

“When I use the number 10 years, I am admitting to you I don’t know.”

Those words come flooding back to me every time I read another story predicting autonomous vehicles will be dotting U.S. roads by 2025.

The quote belongs to advanced-battery guru and Energy Power Systems founder Subhash Dhar, who in an interview last December poked holes in popular projections that call for less costly lithium-ion batteries to arrive within the next decade and once and for all spark electric-vehicle demand.

But the inventor’s insight into the challenge of forecasting the technology horizon would appear to apply equally as well to autonomous vehicles as advanced batteries.

Of course, it’s not that the driverless car won’t happen – even within that relatively short period of just two or three vehicle-development cycles.

The technology is out there today, as Google, Continental and several global auto makers already have proven. And it’s not all that expensive, with costs likely to come down rapidly as systems application proliferates.

But huge development, social and financial hurdles remain, including potential infrastructure issues, legal concerns, questions surrounding operational protocols and lack of consumer confidence in the technology.

That’s why trying to pinpoint, even in a broad sense, how soon we may all be chauffeured around by the intelligent vehicle seems futile.

It might be more realistic to focus less on the ultimate endgame and more on what the autonomous-car building blocks might do for society nearer term, namely help solve the driver-distraction dilemma.

With such systems as emergency braking, lane-keeping assist and blindspot detection already proliferating on luxury cars and quickly moving down-market, the pieces soon may be in place for the car to take control away from the driver when absolutely necessary, long before all the issues associated with full-time autonomous driving are resolved.

Last week, officials from the U.S. Department of Transportation and National Highway Traffic Safety Admin. rolled out voluntary guidelines calling for limits to the amount of time required for drivers to operate infotainment systems and other features that force them to take their eyes off the road.

But even if the formula is right for onboard system controls, nothing will prevent drivers from becoming distracted by handheld devices they bring with them into the car. That leaves the smart car as potentially the best safety answer to the smartphone.

During a conference call to explain the new guidelines, NHTSA Administrator David Strickland said his agency does think a better solution to distracted driving may be found in advanced, active-safety technology, but much more work remains before even that small piece of the autonomous-vehicle equation can be sorted out.

“We have a lot of work under way looking at these active systems, whether its crash-imminent braking or cruise-control lane-keeping – even increased levels of automation, going forward,” Strickland says. “It’s clearly part of the future look at safety.

“(But) there are a number of human factors issues involved with these technologies (that) are still being studied, so it would be premature to say these particular solutions applied to distracted-driving are the complete solution.”

If we’re still a long way from mandating emergency-brake assist and other autonomous-driving building blocks or even just evaluating their potential safety advantages, imagine how long it could take to sort through the entire smart-car puzzle.

So the next time you hear fully automated driving is just a decade away, keep in mind Dhar’s 10-year rule. And hope for the best in the meantime.

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Drew Winter

Drew Winter is Editor-in-Chief of WardsAuto World magazine and a Senior Editor at WardsAuto.com. He was won numerous awards for his work in both print and digital media and has been...

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is executive editor of WardsAuto World magazine, with an emphasis on technology and suppliers. He leads selection of the Ward’s 10 Best Engines and Ward’s 10 Best Interiors...
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