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The rush to autonomous vehicles

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The headlines tell us there’s a massive effort by automakers and tech companies to rush into building and selling fully autonomous cars and trucks. The goal, as I understand it, is to make travel much, much safer. Advocates promise that AVs will slash America’s appalling 35,000-per-year death tally.

However, a closer look at the state of all things autonomous vehicles shows the days of worry-free, self-driving cars could be long in the future.

Mark Rechtin, executive editor of Motor Trend magazine, is among those skeptical of claims that AVs are only a few years away. His March 2018 editorial is titled “Autonomous-car society is still decades away.”

AV technology entails more than what’s on the car. The road system has to be up to the task. Rechtin notes poorly marked and potholed roads and the lack of money to fix and upgrade deficient infrastructure. Furthermore, poor weather and heavy snow can obscure road markings.

And then there are the legal and insurance issues, such as determining liability for accidents and deaths.

Rechtin ends his editorial by saying advances will come, but it will be best to “slow down.” He goes on to say, “The ability to create autonomous vehicles is not at issue. At issue is how to incorporate 21st technology into a world mired in the 20th.”

I agree with his parting words, “And that will take time.”

Bob Lutz, the retired vice chairman of product development at GM, got everyone’s attention when the long-time “car guy” stated in an interview on CNBC’s “Squawk on the Street” program that “self-driving cars are coming very soon and will replace the human-driven variety faster than most people think.”

Lutz predicts that human-driven vehicles will “go the way of horses – they may be kept by the wealthy on ranches and at country clubs as form of entertainment, but will disappear from highways.”

But AV optimists like Lutz may have found cause to pause when an Uber AV test car struck and killed a pedestrian March 19 in Tempe, Ariz.

Arizona is among many states, including Michigan, which has given permission for testing self-driving cars on public roads. A determination of fault is still being debated regarding the Tempe incident, but the tragedy sent a shockwave through the industry. Several self-driving technology companies and several automakers have suspended pilot programming. My prediction is that testing will begin again after a few weeks of review.

Soon after the Tempe incident, Jason Levine, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, made this statement: “It will set consumer confidence in technology back years, if not decades. We need to slow down.”

While I agree with Levine, I’m pretty sure the industry will not abandon the billions of dollars invested in autonomous transportation. Levine’s concerns will soon be forgotten.

Another factor is how do you define “autonomous”? The March/April 2018 AAA Living magazine features a six-level way to think about autonomy.

In Level 0, the driver does it all, maybe with help from available devices like blind-spot recognition.

Level 1 cars have features like adaptive cruise control and self-parking. Level 1 cars can monitor the environment and adjust acceleration, steering and braking on their own – though not simultaneously.

Level 2 has even more autonomy. Cars can control steering and speed, but the driver controls all other functions. The car can stay in lane and control steering, slowing down to avoid other vehicles. This is the highest level on today’s market.

Level 3 is conditional autonomy. These cars can monitor the environment and make their own decisions. The driver must be prepared to take over if needed.

Level 4 is nearly autonomous. The driver is unnecessary. The car can handle any situation as long as it stays in what likely will be a defined area, like a neighborhood or pre-defined route.

Level 5: This is what Waymo (Google), Uber, GM, Ford and all the self-driving technology companies are aiming for – a car that can drive itself anywhere. No human needed.

A number of companies predict that Level 5 stage is within reach in a few years. More and more, though, the date is being pushed back. I’m thinking the Tempe accident could have a significant impact on reaching Level 5.

My bet is it will be at least a decade before we see Level 5 cars in wide use. But I’m not betting my house on my prediction.

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