Technology

A timely reality check on autonomous cars

Driverless cars are coming, but they're not exactly around the next corner.

The largest event of the year in tech is called CES, the Consumer Electronics Show. It's held in Las Vegas in January and it is where we get to see what is coming to market in tech today, tomorrow – and sometimes never.

We've seen a growing number of car manufacturers attending CES, ranging from car launches to demonstrations of concepts of the future vehicle. What often happens, and partially influenced by the outlandish words of Elon Musk, is we pretend these lounge rooms on wheels are about to become reality tomorrow and not in the distant future.

We sat down with HERE Technologies, traditionally a mapping company and now helping car manufacturers achieve self-driving, to help us cut through the hype and understand when we’ll permanently let go of the steering wheel.

While some cities such as Berlin and California have self-driving trials taking place, it is evident that autonomy is very much reliant on the environment. Lane markings, properly mapped surroundings and a large number of sensors are required to make autonomy really work.

As for Australia, lane markings are certainly not always available and not always in pristine condition. So lane marking guidance, while an amazing piece of technology, alone will not work for keeping the car moving. HERE Technologies then uses LIDAR to assess the road, which can then tell the difference between tarmac and grass or dirt.

Car-to-car communication and crowd sourcing of data is also important, particularly for Australia where roadworks or the common pothole after a downpour may not be properly detected by sensors. If, however, cars ahead have had to avoid the pothole once, then that data is captured and shared immediately with surrounding cars and into the cloud, enabling safe detours as required.

In the same way, anyone can map a road with GPS, however once you parallel park cars, the mapping needs to be altered daily by the cars being impacted by the now narrower path. Essentially, cars need to get a lot smarter and more resilient.

Even with all of this in mind, in the next one to two years we’ll still be focused on assisted highway driving in Australia – no napping for the trip to the in-laws just yet. The most interesting change coming for vehicles during the next three years is around connectivity and cars communicating with things around them, collecting and sharing data.

One exciting element that will be coming to cars in the near future is a voice assistant powered by Amazon Alexa and HERE that not only allows you to ask for navigation to a restaurant, but also to book the table and to ensure that parking is available close by. Beyond that, if traffic was struck, then the car would alert the restaurant so you don’t lose that restaurant booking. That is the next step in car technology.

Sanjay Sood, VP of Highly Automated Driving at HERE Technologies, set the record straight on the fully autonomous, 'level 5' hype, telling us that the dream scenario of a lounge room on wheels won’t be a true reality for potentially 30 years – there is simply too many environmental variables that need to be managed.

While the technology is there, a custom-built environment from scratch today could prepare for it and make autonomy work, however applying these vehicles to cities with old infrastructure and systems is not so simple. The responsibility of bringing a city into the new era is also a tough question to answer. Will the City of Sydney want to invest in ensuring that our traffic lights can communicate to cars using data? Who will fund the marking for roads? And what will need to be cut to generate that funding? And if a fully autonomous car wants to venture out of that equipped city, will it still function?

The reality check was important from HERE Technologies. We are absolutely moving forward at a fantastic pace and using systems like Pilot Assist in a Volvo or the BMW Driving Assistant on a highway can feel like the space age already.

What we do need to do is remember they are assistants, and not pilots. We are required to be in control and this will be the case for many years to come. In the same way that cruise control had to be introduced, and then radar cruise and so on, it is all an evolution. It is exciting to gaze into the crystal ball – just don’t tell your kids that they won’t need to learn to drive.

Geoff Quattromani is a tech commentator across various websites, radio stations and TV networks. Geoff travelled to CES in Las Vegas as a guest of HERE Technologies. Geoff is on Twitter @GQuattromani