Maybe the first application would be to monitor a new driver and provide feedack to them on how well they are doing. Create good driving habits at the very beginning. Monitor older drivers too? Maybe you get a discount on your car insurance if you let the monitor your driving habits. Lots of possibilities...
Assumptions like the car will be surrounded by other self-driven cars or on a road with linked sensors is ludicrous - only realistic in airport trains. Look around yourself when you drive and think "how many of my 50 closest (distance-wise) driving companions here are also driving this high-end BMW?" Those are the guys your wizzy car will be communicating with - if they continue to pay for the service, and that road is equipped, and you're not driving to the mountains or the beach (where the roads are remote and curvy and poorly tended). How many are 18-wheelers? Or trucks dragging trailers with lawn mowers? How many are old cars or just "modest" cars? I can't even buy a battery for my car today without checking carefully as to the model and make because there's no standardization for size and capacity. You think these magical common standards in autonomous cars will be universal? Today's cars don't even have wiper switches, headlight switches, or radio buttons in the same place. Every time I get into a rent car, I cuss trying to find these things. You're dreaming in some Eutopian world there, man. What is physically possible and what is practical in the real world - those are very different.
And referring to autopilots on airplanes and a handful of Google or DARPA cars are also foolish. Let's see, airplanes are surrounded by miles of closely managed open space (almost literally) for 99.99% of their lives. Landing and take-off are at a handful (OK, a thousand) well-known/-mapped/-controlled airports. Each aircraft essentially has the sky to itself. And yes, an airplane is actually easy to fly on the first level. No autopilot took over the plane when it sucked up birds and Scully landed gently on the Hudson/Potomac river. Automobiles are easy to drive, but they are subject to complete randomness in terms of route, road surfaces, surrounding vehicles, and driver attitudes. If you want to shake my seat when someone in my blind spot is getting too close, fine, that's worth about $5 to me. But loading my car up with $5000 of electronics so it can drive itself on 5 roads in the area is a no-value show-stopper. Give me the left lane of the highway with a gutter that will catch my wheel, and some 20' fiberglass poles with magnets at the end to connect/separate me from the guy in front/behind and we'll all tool along close-cropped at 100 mph in each other's slipstream, and maybe I'll buy into it. But have your insurance man and a lawyer ready too because I don't know who's at the front of the line.
Anyone who can see over the windshield and reach the pedals can drive a car. Teenagers, drunks, old ladies, orange cones, and the idiotic "guard rail damage ahead" signs have proven to us that driving a car safely, at speed on busy public roads requires intelligence, attention, and skill. Often you are essentially tiptoeing along the edge of a cliff: one small mistake and you've got a long painful fall ahead of you. These guys have to get out of the theoretical world and look at the practical world.
How much easier would it be to use a couple of computers to match up people going from Point A to Point B at Time C and get them into one car, eliminating 60% of traffic? But that wouldn't sell more cars, would it?
That's a starting point, then. You need to make the paths these cars take, on the roadways, more predictable, more similar to a train on tracks. That doesn't sound impossible, does it? In this era of virtualization? It's one of the jobs the vehicle to inftrastructure comms must fill.
As to potholes, they can be detected by a combination of onboard sensors and/or roadside sensors and beacons, at least as consistently as they can by your average distracted human driver, busy chatting on the phone or worse. Plus, the autonomous car driving alongside other autonomous cars, i.e. with panic-prone humans out of the loop, will be much more capable of swerving to avoid such obstacles, without running into another car or off the road in the process. Thanks in part to vehicle-to-vehicle comms that aren't hampered by poor visibility left and right while they are busy looking ahead, or by screaming kids in the back seat, or by an irrepressible urge to text while driving, or just by plain old slow reflexes.
Honestly, guys, you'd think driving a car was the most difficult task the human race has ever had to master. Yet, just about anyone can do it. Doesn't anyone wonder why? If computers can beat the most expert chess players, and run the most precise machines, what makes anyone think they can't do something as repetitive as driving a car? Especially if the other cars on the road are also autonomous, and not haphazardly driven by humans.
An 8-bit MCU is smart enough to keep trains running on a fully-enclosed circular track from running into each other when they only come once every five minutes. No steering required; not even a commitment to keeping the trains running as close to each other as possible. Pure, dumb timing. No steering, no decisions as to whether that's a painted white stripe that I'm supposed to stay just this side of or whether it's light glaring off of a ridge in the after-dark rain-wet pavement. No judgment whether that's a foot-deep pot-hole or a patched pot hole or a board in the road. No decision needed whether it's less damaging to hit the pile of clothes or the concrete blocks in the road. In fact, I'll bet if you jump on the tracks at the airport, the train will run right over you. I seem to remember the DFW airport in about 1980 had little trolley cars on rails that shuttled people from terminal to terminal. They were jerky (hadn't worked out the smooth ramp up and down of the motors yet) but they dutifully did their job without apparent human intervention. (might have been tires in troughs rather than iron wheels on rails).
"Full autonomy still requires constant supervision. There is no system that can yet match a human driver's ability to respond to the unexpected."
By redefining what "autonomous car" means, I have no doubt that a target date of 2020 can be reached. However, a constantly vigilant human behind the wheel is not the way I would define "autonomous."
Many airports now have truly autonomous shuttle trains. Absolutely no operator in the train - just passengers. To me, that's what an autonmous car needs to achieve, to merit the title. Otherwise, it's driver assistance. So that's perhaps why I don't buy this notion that autonomous cars already exist, driving on public roads alongside normal cars. Not by my definition, not on public roads anyway.
But, redefine what words mean, and one can make anything happen.
As an aside, I think that truly autonomous vehicles can be developed, but with a lot of cooperation from many different disciplines and organizations, AND that such vehicles can be a lot safer than cars driven by your average human.
[One person] while any locomotive [i.e., powered vehicle] is in motion, shall precede such locomotive on foot by not less than sixty yards, and shall carry a red flag constantly displayed, and shall warn the riders and drivers of horses of the approach of such locomotives, and shall signal the driver thereof when it shall be necessary to stop, and shall assist horses, and carriages drawn by horses...
Or this gem from Pennsylvania (1896):
Legislators unanimously passed a bill through both houses of the state legislature, which would require all motorists piloting their "horseless carriages", upon chance encounters with cattle or livestock to (1) immediately stop the vehicle, (2) "immediately and as rapidly as possible... disassemble the automobile," and (3) "conceal the various components out of sight, behind nearby bushes" until equestrian or livestock is sufficiently pacified.
I too find Google Cars to be quite alarming and I like the idea disassembling them as quickly as possible :-)
Just make sure EETimes lets us know when someone allows these self-driving cars on the roads. Be sure the cars are equipped with flashing warning lights and sirens (in case the long trail of lawyer-driven cars following them doesn't clue us in). When Calif allows Google cars on the public roads, I'll leave CA. Generally, I'd be happy for anyone who has had a drink in the previous 12 hours, teenagers, anyone with a cell phone/tablet, anyone with a headset, and anyone listening to radio, TV/DVD, children or a yakking spouse to be prohibited - electronically if necessary - from driving a car. But I'd still rather let those folks drive than to have our perfectly programmed electronics driving the cars, which would be worse if there still has to be an alert human when the computer says "I give up, you take over!" (not unlike the Tesla warning "the battery may be about to start a fire, please pull over when it is safe and exit the vehicle - customer service has been notified and your salesman will be along soon to pick you up"
The Other Tesla David Blaza5 comments I find myself going to Kickstarter and Indiegogo on a regular basis these days because they have become real innovation marketplaces. As far as I'm concerned, this is where a lot of cool ...