Sorting fact from fancy and fear isn’t always easy. In just the past three days we’ve heard all three about self-driving cars. First, Duke University roboticist Missy Cummings testified before Congress that auto companies were “rushing to market” before self-driving cars are ready, and “someone is going to die.” “Many of the sensors on self-driving cars are not reliable in good weather, in urban canyons, or places where the map databases are out of date,” she explained in arguing for federal standards for self-driving technology.
No one argues that the technology is ready today and no one argues that it will reduce fatalities to zero. Cummings may have been trying to say that a car with no features other than adaptive cruise control and lane centering will encourage drivers to fall asleep in the back seat, but it isn’t clear how federal regulation would prevent that since those technologies are already available on many cars.
Ironically, just a few days before, Ford explained how its self-driving cars would overcome all of the problems cited by Cummings. As the Antiplanner described a few months ago, Ford and other companies are relying heavily on precise maps that can be automatically updated every time an appropriately equipped car drives down a particular route (which can then update the maps for other cars). If an occupant wants to take an unmapped route, the self-driving car would refuse to go there without a human driver. This would solve all of Cummings’ issues without government intervention.
Researchers for Baidu (a Chinese competitor of Google) argued in Wired this week that, even with the mapping technology used by Ford and other manufacturers, we’ll still need to change infrastructure to make self-driving cars work. The article specifically mentions road workers directing traffic in construction zones; sensors blinded by direct sunlight; and “complex situations” such as children running in traffic. But other self-driving car designers have been aware of these types of problems from the beginning, and new or improved infrastructure is not the only and far from the best solution.
We might want to ask road workers to use consistent signage, for example by placing stop or directional signs at a fixed height above the pavement. That won’t require new infrastructure. When blinded by the sun, self-driving cars would do the same as human drivers: slow down. But there’s no reason to think we can’t build sensors that can see the road in any conditions just as well as humans can. As for complex situations, a self-driving car would treat anything it sees that isn’t fixed and on its map as a potential obstruction and be prepared to avoid it.
Meanwhile, the Guardian again raises the lame fear that self-driving cars will be susceptible to hacking. No, most self-driving cars being tested today are independent of the technology that would allow cars to be hacked. The only electronic signals those cars receive are from GPS satellites, and I don’t think anyone has figured out a way to use GPS satellites to hack one particular receiver.
The technology that will allow cars to be hacked is the vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) system that the Obama administration wants to mandate on all new cars, not just self-driving cars. Engineers for Google, Ford, Volkswagen, and others say their self-driving cars can do without it, but that’s the system that people should fear. If all cars use the same government-mandated V2I system, then they will be far more susceptible to hacking than if different manufacturers offer different systems and people have a choice of whether to use one or not.
The good news comes from a Wall Street Journal report that people can buy a self-driving car for $20,000. This is the kind of thing that Cummings was talking about because the car isn’t really self-driving, but it does have adaptive cruise control and lane centering, theoretically allowing drivers to take their hands off the wheel for short periods of time. The car in question is a Honda Civic which, when equipped with an optional Honda sensing package (which includes things like adaptive cruise control, lane centering, collision warning and braking), has a list price of $20,440 plus shipping.
I’m not sure why this is news now as the car was available last October. I guess something isn’t true until it is reported in a “newspaper of record” like WSJ. But the Journal‘s valid point is that auto manufacturers are making technologies like this available in low-end cars for minimal additional cost only a few years after they were available in high-end cars. The Honda Sensing package adds just $1,000 to the base price of the Civic, Accord, CR-V, and Pilot (but not the Fit or Odyssey). Coincidentally, the Antiplanner predicted a couple months ago that adding self-driving capabilities to new and many recent cars would cost about $1,000.