Things are starting to move pretty fast in the self-driving (autonomous) vehicle technology sector. Every other week or so it seems like there’s a new big news item, whether relating to the Waymo (Google) and Chyrsler partnership, or Uber, or Tesla, or Baidu, or nuTonomy, etc.
However, it’s quite different reading general reporting about a self-driving vehicle pilot in Singapore versus first-hand accounts. When I talk to average people on the street about self-driving cars or taxis, most are very skeptical that the tech will be in widespread use even a decade from now.
Those in the auto industry, though, are more or less all speeding as fast as they can to develop and release such tech. Not a decade from now, but in just a few years. Some companies even claim that there will be widespread use of self-driven taxis within only a few years. All new Teslas reportedly now feature enough hardware to allow for full autonomy once software development catches up and regulatory approval arrives.
With all of that in mind, I read an interesting account of a recent test drive in an autonomous Hyundai Ioniq Electric, and many of the comments seem worth reposting. Here they are (courtesy of Autoblog):
“The trip was mostly uneventful — our driver/engineer didn’t hit anyone, and, unlike Uber’s, Hyundai’s car didn’t run any red lights. … More than once during our ride around a pre-mapped, all-right-turn route in Las Vegas, the Ioniq had to sort things out for itself, and the longer you ride the more you realize the scope of data we humans process without noticing. …
“Braking is often moderate to heavy, more on/off than the modulation range of many human drivers, but we felt no panic braking or ABS intervention. The steering wheel ratchets through turns in what appear to be three- or four-degree increments, then calculates that’s not enough, and adds more or less as needed. That kind of steering movement is a curious thing to watch, and likely not the most energy-efficient or easiest on tires, but it wasn’t abrupt enough to transfer lateral motion or head-toss to occupants. Once the car has satisfied itself the road is clear, acceleration to the limit is electric-car crisp, effortless. and quiet.
“During our ride, the car signaled appropriately, always used the correct lane, and stayed within the lines even on poorly marked curving roads (no lane changes on this route) and dutifully motored past Las Vegas’s finest at the posted speed limit. The only potentially illegal move was a right turn with pedestrians in the marked crosswalk eight lanes away. At our speed they’d have had plenty of time to move aside if they were closer, and with that distance and a center divider the move didn’t seem the least bit unsafe, especially with the two regular cars behind following suit.
“Observing from inside the cabin, the details and variety of situations the car faces become more focused. Much of the process is dependent on the accuracy and detail of the mapping the car’s using, so a dip in the road or rough railroad crossing might be done faster than a human thinking about comfort or suspension longevity. It has to know if a left-turn arrow has a no-U-turn limitation, as this car did and calculated properly. It does not have the ability to separate more-dangerous pedestrians — those holding a phone or ranting at nothing in particular — and it does not have capacity to detect strobes, warning beacons, or sirens on approaching emergency vehicles. When stopped behind a pickup where the camera could see the red light but nothing below it, we wondered how long it would wait after the red light goes out before honking.”