MADISON, Wis. -- Once Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) started to proliferate on the consumer automotive market, the media began to breathlessly anticipate a future of "self-driving cars." (This publication is no exception when we post a story like Can a Car Find a Parking Spot by Itself?)
The louder the buzz about autonomous driving, the more excited consumers are supposed to get. They might even accept its eventuality -- or so hope auto companies.
Well, not so fast.
There is a pretty visible gap between what ADAS is capable of doing today and how consumers envision the ultimate future of autonomous driving. The conversation on "self-driving cars" between automakers and consumers has barely begun.
It's important to note that engineering -- automotive, mobile phones, or consumer electronics in general -- is no longer just about what technologies can do. It's about how technologies convenience -- or sometimes unwittingly -- inconvenience people's lives. Consumers have been known to adjust their behavior to technologies, or "getting used to it," as the industry describes it. But don't believe for a minute that this is a given.
Many engineering issues today center on how technologies eventually emulate; mimic; and, if possible, understand people's actions, tastes, and emotions. Therein lies the challenge of the self-driving car.
Because a car is an everyday tool, the likely decisions made by self-driving cars must be deeply personal to most consumers. The essential design issue lies in anticipating what users might or might not do in advance. It's about knowing how a person behaves while driving.
In a recent interview with EE Times, Davide Santo, Freescale Semiconductor's safety and chassis segment manager, based in Munich, offered a no-nonsense straight talk on the future of self-driving cars. In his view, there are at least three high-level challenges, or "areas for investigation," that the automotive industry needs to work on before coming up with acceptable driverless cars:
The first challenge is about the "handover" from car to driver -- in terms of making decisions and knowing when to return the car to "manual" control, explained Santo.
There will be times, Santo explained, when the situation on the road gets too tricky for a driverless car to handle. But at a time when that "handover" decision, followed by an appropriate action, needs to be taken within a matter of seconds, how does the car know if a driver is paying attention to the road? Is the human driver aware of what's around his car at that very moment?
Sure, sensors inside the car can keep an eye on the driver and be ready to get his attention, and tell him there's a train/helicopter/six-car crash brewing at the intersection, so maybe he should grab the wheel and steer for the ditch. But this all needs to happen very quickly. How the car gives back control to a driver, how the driver accepts it, and how fast -- all while the car is tooling along at 55 -- is a scary challenge.
As much as the automotive industry is eager to offer driverless cars, blindly following the trend could unexpectedly risk the reputation of a brand.
Think about it, said Santo. "For a lot of drivers, cars aren't just about safety. They're also about the joy of driving." An automotive brand like BMW, which billed itself as "The Ultimate Driving Machine," is now offering drivers, in its promotions, "Sheer Driving Pleasure." But if a driver loves driving his BMW, how does BMW enable him to express that love in a driverless BMW that doesn't let him drive?
Safety should certainly come first. But after all, people choose a car with a certain brand because they think the brand speaks to them. So, how carmakers incorporate that personality in driverless cars is an interesting quandary.
Cars will adapt "actively" to drivers, according to Santo. Santo said during his EET interview: "Why shouldn't my car speak with an Italian accent? The car will know that I speak English with an Italian accent, and the car can and should adapt to it when it speaks to me." That little idiosyncrasy could easily put a driver in a much more relaxed mood, Santo added.