By Henry Payne
If a steering wheel that spins around like Linda Blair’s head in “The Exorcist” freaks you out, then self-driving cars may not be for you.
Last summer, while I rode in Google’s autonomous Lexus 450h — texting and checking email on my smartphone — the wheel spun this way and that, steering the hybrid-electric SUV through the busy streets of Montain View, CA.
SPIIIIIIN to the right as we (there were four of us in the vehicle) made a right turn at a stoplight. SPIIIIN to the left as we negotiated a long sweeper. Or suddenly vibrating — BRRDDDDRRR — in anticipation of taking avoidance action when a bus suddenly feinted a turn into our lane. Didn’t bother me a bit. I kept texting.
Google claims its self-driving cars don’t need a steering wheel, but the law — for now — requires it in case of an emergency so a driver can take over. All of Google’s cars have a steering wheel.
That would be a deal breaker for my wife.
Despite the Google car’s celebrity, cars with various forms of autonomy are actually quite common on today’s roads. Twenty percent of Ford’s Escape sales come with a self-parking feature, for example. Mrs. Payne and I recently test-drove a new Ford Edge crossover, which can parallel and perpendicular park itself, thank you very much.
After passing an open parking spot, my wife braked, and then put the Edge in self-park mode. As the steering wheel spun right, then left, to negotiate the space, I thought she was going to throw holy water at the demon to make it stop. When the Edge finally braked to a stop in the space, the car had made its point: Autonomous driving works — and it’s not for everyone.
Neither is it for every driving situation.
“Commuting to work in the morning isn’t fun,” says Chris Urmson, director of Google’s Self-Driving Car Project. “What if we could let people focus on things like texting that they are already doing in their cars, but do it safely?”
Google predicts that autonomous vehicles could eliminate 90 percent of the approximately 32,000 car-related fatalities a year, while making commuting less stressful and more productive. Maybe. Maybe not.
This May, Urmson disclosed that his self-driving cars have been in 11 “minor accidents” — none of them caused by the Google car — including rear-end bang-ups and a t-bone. Damage was minor because Google self-drivers have been intentionally limited to routes with speed limits under 25 mph.
Self-driving on high-speed interstates is more problematic. Earlier this year, I tried “self-driving” Audi’s state-of-the-art A8 luxury sedan. The $100,000 beauty bristles with driver-assist features — lane-keep assist, adaptive cruise control, collision mitigation — utilizing similar radar and camera technologies found on the Google car.
But such technologies — particularly cameras — demand good driving infrastructure. Like well-painted lane lines on highways. Unlike the Lodge Freeway. On my way home from downtown Detroit, the Audi’s lane-keep assist expertly stayed between the marking lines … until it didn’t. At the point when a line inexplicably disappeared — due to a lack of road maintenance or because it was obscured by a tire mark — the system would simply beep at me and display a message in the instrument cluster: “PLEASE TAKE OVER STEERING.”
Oh, well, so much for those emails I wanted to send.
Such gaps in technology are why Google cars carry a Velodyne laser dome. Aka, LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging). Aka, the bubblegum machine.
On top of Google’s own marshmallow-shaped autonomous vehicle, it looks like an old police light on top of a ‘60s police cruiser. With its four supports atop my Lexus, it resembles a giant insect. Containing 64 lasers spinning at 10 revolutions per second, the LIDAR takes 1.5 million measurements per second. Under the skin, a quad-core processor syncs the laser’s 360-degree view with preprogrammed maps of the surrounding area — this is where the Google Maps department comes in handy — to navigate a complex, ever-changing field of pedestrians, potholes, stoplights, orange barrels, soccer balls, etc. — not to mention other vehicles.
It’s expensive. Really expensive.
An analysis by business magazine Fast Company estimates that a $24,000 Toyota Prius adapted for Google’s fleet costs an eye-popping $320,000 once optioned with LIDAR and other necessary features.
Such costs are a challenge to transportation companies like California’s airport-focused Prime Time Shuttle, which are on the front lines of adopting autonomous tech.
“Driverless vehicles will change the game,” says Prime Time Shuttle’s CEO Rattan Joea, who sees an Uber-like, autonomous-ride-share future. “It will streamline our service by taking the operator out of the equation. Computers don’t get tired. They don’t get sleepy.”
But regulation remains a barrier. Daimler AG’s Freightliner division is developing autonomous trucks that would allow the driver “to take care of other duties — paperwork, delivery scheduling and so on — while the truck steers itself,” writes John McCormick in The Detroit News. In the wake of this May’s fatal Amtrak train crash outside Philadelphia — due in part, apparently, to a gap in an autonomous train system — the prospect of licensing 65,000-pound self-driving trucks hurtling down populated freeways looks remote.
The near future of autonomous cars is likely the continued refinement of driver-assist technologies like collision mitigation and self-park. Which means a new generation of travelers that will find spinning steering wheels as common as smart phones.