Fully loaded: A self-driving station wagon demonstrated at Stanford University in 2009 was loaded with expensive sensors connected to a computer in the trunk.
Some experts, however, think the evolutionary approach could reach its limit in a few years. Stefan Solyom, an engineer at Volvo, based in Gothenburg, Sweden (but recently purchased by Chinese auto group Geely), warns that incremental thinking can take the industry only so far. “At some point,” he says, “we need to make a dramatic shift when the vehicle is able to take over fully automatic tasks.”
The reason, Solyom says, is that the biggest benefits of automation can’t be realized until a driver’s hands are off the wheel. Volvo this year demonstrated self-driving cars that can travel together in a highway convoy, something Solyom says could cut fuel consumption by 15 percent (the cars would brake less often and be able to draft one another). Automation could also eliminate many traffic accidents caused by human error, estimated to account for 80 percent of all crashes. Finally, not having to pay attention would free up countless hours for “drivers” to focus on other tasks, like reading a paper or responding to e-mail.
Automakers say crossing the technological inflection point to full automation will require significant legal changes. In many countries, laws require a human driver to be in control of motorized vehicles or be able to take over instantly. Another obstacle, say manufacturers, is uncertainty over whether they will be held liable for accidents involving driverless cars.
Sven Beiker, a BMW veteran who is now executive director of the Center for Automotive Research at Stanford University, says automated vehicles are likely to face public-relations problems. “We currently have, sadly enough, around 33,000 people killed in road accidents in the United States every year,” says Beiker. “Imagine we can bring it down to 10,000 with autonomous vehicles, which would be a huge success. Would the headlines read something like ‘Autonomous Vehicles Save 23,000 Lives’ or would it be ‘Robot Cars Kill 10,000 People’?”
Consumer themselves are likely to be the final obstacle. For years, BMW’s advertising has promised control over “the ultimate driving machine.” Now, as the machine takes charge, companies need to persuade consumers to go along. One example is the BMW “parking assistant” feature that uses ultrasonic sensors to take control of the steering during parallel parking. It is sold with the tag line “Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you always have to do it yourself.”