I tend to be swayed back and forth by the promise of self-driving cars. On the one hand, I read about how good they are and have advanced so much that one might expect them to be available for commercial use within the next decade. Then I read that that they are only as good as the latest map updates and cannot cope with the kinds of temporary changes in road conditions that are common and then I feel pessimistic that they will be a reality soon.
But now there is a report of a car that took a 9-day trip from San Francisco to New York City, a 3,400 mile journey where it was driverless for 99% of the way, although it always had a driver in it at all times. The car was designed by a British company named Delphi.
To make a 2014 Audi SQ5 fully automated, engineers installed six long-range radars, four short-range radars, three vision-based cameras, six laser range detectors and a full suite of software. That’s a lot of technology, but one would be hard-pressed to spot it, as it all blends seamlessly into the vehicle’s design.
Throughout the drive, Delphi’s vehicle encountered weather, construction zones, bridges, tunnels and, of course, reckless drivers. However, the vehicle handled these situations better than expected, and engineers rarely took control of the wheel.
While this looks good, the catch is of course the remaining 1% or how to handle the situations when the engineers had to take control of the wheel. From other reports, it appeared that this car was automated only on the highways and human drivers took over when the car took an off-ramp into local streets. Whether one is optimistic or pessimistic about the future of self-driving cars depends on how difficult that remaining 1% turns out to be.
Here’s a short clip of what it is like to be in such a car.
The car drives in such a steady way, with minimal changes in speed and direction, that it seems actually boring, behaving pretty much like it would with a very law-abiding driver.
The car, according to Delphi, never broke a speed limit, which apparently did not go over well with other drivers during the trek. Owens acknowledges the vehicle was the recipient of a “few hateful gestures.”
Delphi put a human driver in the driver’s seat during the ride given the test aspect and to work out a few kinks, such as the car not wanting to move into a crowded left lane to avoid a police stop on a road shoulder and edging to one side for some looming semis, as apparently the vehicle shares the same fear of huge tractor-trailer trucks that many humans have.