Autonomous cars are not only coming, they are already here.
At the CES conference on Tuesday, Ford announced that 20 more Fusions would be added to its existing fleet of 10 for experimentation in California, Arizona and Michigan. They'll be equipped with the latest sensor, dubbed Hybrid Ultra Puck, due to its resemblance to a hockey puck. It fits on the sideview mirror, provides precision mapping with three-dimensional models of the surroundings, and extends range by 200 metres over the current sensor.
Ford CEO Mark Fields said the Society of Automotive Engineers has identified five stages of autonomous driving and, after a decade of research, Ford has reached the fourth. At the fifth, cars will be fully autonomous in all weather conditions and available "to millions of people."
After his presentation, he conceded the hurdle of insurance liability arguably would transfer from the driver to the maker of the autonomous vehicle.
In concert, the question is when will consumers be ready to psychologically accept the act of ceding control to a combination of sensors andradar – laser-stoked LiDar – all feeding an on-board computer? A Kanetix poll of Canadians finds that 52 per cent would want to evaluated the effectiveness of the technology before committing. Western Canadians least desire a driverless car while Ontarians and Quebecers are most enthusiastic. Nearly twice as many males as females are interested, and the 18-to-34 group as a whole is most keen.
At the CES conference in Las Vegas this week, nine of the world's top-10 auto makers are showing off the rapidly evolving technology, along with electric vehicles.
On Monday, Toyota and Ford said they will adopt the same software to link smartphone apps to vehicle dashboard screens and invited other auto makers to join them to counter Apple Inc and Google's push to control cars of the future.
Toyota, the world's largest automaker by vehicle sales, and Ford, the No. 2 U.S. auto maker, said they will adopt a Ford-developed software called SmartDeviceLink, or SDL, as the standard for connecting smartphone apps to vehicle dashboard screens. Ford was widely expected to announce association with Google as there are huge potential revenues in transportation services with driverless cars.
The Consumer Technology Association, sponsor of CES, expects one million fully autonomous vehicles to be produced annually by 2030.
Google has reportedly logged 1.3 million miles in testing with its own vehicle and with a specially equipped Lexus.
In Tokyo this past November, Toyota demonstrated the technology amidst the traffic of a commuter highway.
A professional driver drove a Lexus on city streets until reaching an on-ramp. There, he cupped both hands underneath the steering wheel, and for the duration of the demonstration on a popular expressway, nary a finger touched the wheel.
The vehicle climbed the on-ramp, merged into traffic, changed lanes, passed, got passed, and exited a few kilometres down the road.
The demonstrations were part of a long industry campaign to educate a public that loves to drive cars and will be wary of taking their hands off the wheel in traffic.
"We spend a long time talking to people about the basic operations of vehicles," Toyota Canada vice-president Stephen Beatty said. "You're taught how to drive once and what you learn at 16-17 years old forms the basis of your knowledge. If you renew vehicles every 10 years, only so much will stick. When we see rate at which technology is changing, the public needs to be educated, and we need find ways to make that fun and engaging."
At last year's CES, autonomous Audis escorted a group of writers from Silicon Valley in Northern California to Las Vegas.
And, atop a casino parking lot on the Strip, driver-less BMWs self-parked – first identifying an empty space, getting positioned, backing in, determining the angle to be off, correcting by moving forward, ultimately backing in to park perfectly. Engineers said the car should be able to drop its passengers at a restaurant, then go hunting for a parking space in an arcade by itself.
From the perspective of the passenger seat during the demonstration, it felt like the Invisible Man was in control, as the steering wheel jerked to the left and right, the gas and brake pedals moved up and down on their own.
"These vehicles will be on the same road as [non-automated] cars, motorcycles, people and bicycles, so how to give priorities?" Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda asked rhetorically during a seminar at the Tokyo Motor Show in November. "Rules have to be established, car-to-car, and car-to-human being. … We should think about how to make vehicles autonomous. Maybe that's where the auto sector can come together."
In common, the demonstrations we have seen to date are conducted in nice weather on dry roads. Hyundai's fascinating video on YouTube shows autonomously driven cars slamming on brakes to stop behind a big truck, but it was shot in the desert. The sensors integral to success aren't reliable in winter conditions. Toyota engineers said progress is being made for rain with radar but they have not been able to determine how to deal with winter conditions yet.
Fields on Tuesday cautioned that there are a lot of stunts being orchestrated that may be deceiving the public about the practical application of the technology.
On a snow, slush and salt-covered road In Alberta recently, a Lincoln MKX equipped with a gamut of safety features flashed a warning. Due to the road conditions, the message on the driver's panel read, the safety mechanisms should not be relied upon. In other words: "Driver, over to you."
Auto makers cite numerous benefits of autonomous driving including accident prevention, reduction of congestion, mobility for seniors. Just as a driver-piloted Uber car can be summoned on your mobile device today, conceivably that Google car will show up at your door, driver-less. Punch in the directions, off you go.
"The Google car may be one concept," Honda chair Fumihiko Ike said. "These technologies are becoming fast available. We need to have a global discussion of how society will look at it."
Toyota demonstrated a system that uses a device mounted on traffic poles to communicate directly with a car about oncoming traffic hidden behind a truck or bus, and about pedestrians in the way of a long turn at an intersection. While the tech warns a driver today, in future it would theoretically instruct the car without human intervention.
With a file from Reuters