The Arrival of Autonomous Cars, Examined

Editor's Letter

I'm rolling down the highway, heading down I-71 in northern Kentucky, when I decide to let the 2016 Honda Pilot take over.

My hands are loosely on the wheel, my feet off the gas and brake. Without any help from me, the car speeds up, slows down, goes with the flow. I switch on lane keeping assist and perform the "look, Ma, no hands" routine. The car drives itself and stays in the lane for about 15 seconds until an alert in the center of the instrument panel implores me to get my mitts back on the wheel.

I turn off onto a wide, sweeping exit to another roadway, and traffic in front slows considerably. The adaptive cruise control can't hustle the Pilot down quickly enough. The forward collision alert flashes BRAKE in the instrument panel and screams at me to pump the brakes or they will be pumped for me by the collision mitigation braking system in 3, 2 ... . Instead, I step in and hit the brakes. Crisis averted.

The human driver isn't obsolete—yet.

But these are the types of systems that mainstream automakers such as Honda are beginning to roll out in abundance, and it's not just on cars at the higher end of the market. The technologies coming online today form the tip of an approaching automated-mobility iceberg, and there will be no turning the titans of automobiledom away from it. Disruptors—Google, Tesla, and maybe Apple—are also angling to be an integral part of a tech-led transportation future. We've examined this new world of transportation for some time at AUTOMOBILE.

Jamie Kitman discussed the coming carpocalypse in his April 2015 "On Mobile Phones and Phone Mobiles" column: "The ridiculously fast Mercedes-AMGs and Dodge SRT Hellcats that make the headlines these days? Head fakes and placeholders as the automobile industry accelerates down the path to completely automated driving."

Arthur St. Antoine also broached the hot-button issue in his column last month, "The Next Extinction: Drivers. " "Everywhere I look I see them: drivers gunning down neighborhood streets at 60 mph, blowing through stoplights redder than North Korea, texting with one hand while tuning the Pandora radio with the other. They simply can't be bothered to shoulder the gargantuan responsibility of guiding their steel missiles as safely and competently as possible. And so, while they're busy catching up on Snap­chats, HAL 9000 is going to take the steering wheel away. From all of us."

It seems almost daily someone else pops off about a future where the car becomes nothing more than a four-wheeled automaton. "You can't have a person driving a two-ton death machine," Tesla CEO and noted quote machine Elon Musk stated at a recent Silicon Valley technology conference.

Ray Kurzweil, the noted inventor, futurist, and Google's director of engineering, said in a speech at this year's Society of Automotive Engineers World Congress that self-driving cars are a given in the near future, and he believes it won't be long before even the most inexpensive computer will be able to outperform a human at driving. I hear ya, Ray. I see drivers on the road every day in L.A. who could be outperformed by their smartphones.

Google has enough relentlessly driven brainiacs like Kurzweil—and enough cash—to pull off its vision of a dronelike conveyance with no steering wheel, no pedals, no humans necessary. It's apparently all for our own good—an effort to save us from ourselves.

"About 33,000 people die on America's roads every year. That's why so much of the enthusiasm for self-driving cars has focused on their potential to reduce accident rates," blogged Chris Urmson, the director of Google's self-driving car program.

Let me stress that the goal of dramatically reducing crashes and deaths on our roadways is an absolutely noble pursuit, and I can appreciate what Google has set out to do, possible ulterior motives aside. (If we're not staring at the road, we just might have more time to stare at Google advertising.) As we know, not many drivers are like us. We drive for pleasure, to enjoy the experience, to appreciate the craftsmanship of a finely tuned automobile. We respect the car, its power, its potential to become "a two-ton death machine." The thought of a world in which I will simply be a passenger in a nondescript pod with no controls is frightening, but is it any less frightening than the hordes of clowns endangering us all with their inattention?

So, will we all be texting mindlessly and Snapchatting away while HAL 9000 minds the controls anytime soon? And how quickly does Google think it will it achieve its driverless-car vision quest? We take an in-depth look at these questions and more this month, with stories on both the hurdles facing autonomous cars, and the progress already made. I'm eager to hear your thoughts on vehicle automation and how you think it will affect you at letters@automobilemag.com.

As with any emerging technology, robotic cars have generated disputes about terminology. For example, many experts reject the term "autonomous," preferring to describe such cars as "automated." But here in the U.S., at least, a consensus has formed around the levels-of-autonomy classification system formulated by the SAE. "These levels are descriptive rather than normative and technical rather than legal," the SAE writes. "They imply no particular order of market introduction." This is Tier 1 supplier Continental AG's timeline for the various types of autonomous systems that we'll see on our roadways. -- Preston Lerner

  • 1
  • Driver Assistance
  • Some automated driving aids
  • Driver
  • Driver
  • Driver
  • What we have today
  • 2
  • Partial automation
  • Large suite of driving aids
  • System
  • Driver
  • Driver
  • Coming the very near future
  • 3
  • Conditional automation
  • Fully automated functionality
  • System
  • System
  • Driver
  • The driver is still ultimately responsible
  • 4
  • High automation
  • Human input optional
  • System
  • System
  • System
  • The car is able to come safely to a stop on its own
  • 5
  • Full automation
  • Fully robotic car
  • System
  • System
  • System
  • Human occupants are nothing more than cargo

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