There are a range of cars currently on the market in Australia with more self-driving features than they’re allowed to use, according to an industry commentator.
Unlocking some of that capability is a matter of fine tuning, law changes and, in some cases, software upgrades.
The self-driving Uber vehicle that struck and killed a pedestrian in Arizona was a modified version of a Volvo XC90 model.
In Australia, that car, “can manage freeway driving on its own”, according to Ian Christensen, the head of iMove — a research centre dedicated to technology and transport.
“All cars with automation have more capability than they’re currently allowed to deploy,” he said.
“There is no question of that. In that respect, they’re held back by the regulatory environment.”
Car manufacturers are still developing driverless technology — moving towards being “highly automated” — and some of the progress will be in the software, meaning you can buy a car like the XC90 now and its autonomous features could improve in the future.
Amanda Appel has one on order.
“I just found the best cars in terms of who has autonomous technology and who’s best for safety,” she said.
“Volvo advised me that I could bring the car in, it has a software update and I’m good to go according to the law — when the law updates.”
Volvo Australia’s technical manager, David Pickett, said it’s a little more complicated than that.
“People seem to have this idea that in a few years’ time we’ll be pressing this button and the car will be sending the kids off to school on their own,” he said.
In reality, Australia should expect three main modes of autonomous driving:
- Autonomous cars driving at low speed in car parks
- Autonomous shuttles that will move around inside restricted areas like university campuses
- Cars that will autonomously commute on motorways
It’s that third one that Volvo is focusing on.
“Volvo are looking at motorways, separated traffic, roads with no pedestrians that are well marked and well signposted,” Mr Pickett said.
He said cars ready made with the ability to drive themselves on Australian motorways were likely to be available by 2021/22, but there were, “some improvements that can be done” to existing models.
“For example, in 2016, the car would steer itself within the lane up to about 40 kilometres per hour,” he said.
“We updated it in 2017 and gave it that ability up to 130kph, and it would detect large animals in addition to pedestrians and cyclists.”
Some improvements ‘downloaded overnight’
Ms Appel wouldn’t describe herself as a car person, but this was more of a technology purchase, so the potential for the vehicle’s features to improve over its life was a reason to buy.
“I come from a tech-adopting family and we really wanted that experience. It’s very much one of the primary decision makers for us,” she said.
“I want to be that person that when laws change, when the tech updates … I’ve received no shock in terms of that. I want to be entirely comfortable with the changes that happen.”
Mr Christensen warned software updates would help advance some existing models, but other improvements could require bigger changes.
“Where the improvement is a software, programming improvement, some of that can be downloaded overnight,” he said.
“If it fundamentally requires a more sophisticated sensor, well of course that can’t be downloaded. That would require a new vehicle.
“There will be elements of both.”
For Mr Christensen, the Uber crash pointed to possible software improvements.
“In the case of identifying objects on the road, including pedestrians, that could be improved with software — pattern-recognition software — not a new sensor,” he said.
“The sensor produces some sort of pattern and the computer in the car has to detect if that pattern represents a person, a lamp post or nothing. And clearly in this case the computer didn’t recognise the pattern as a person.”
‘Humans are inferior’
Ms Appel said the Arizona crash did not discourage her from adopting autonomous driving technology.
“It worries me less than a drunk driver I might encounter or a 95-year-old without a licence — both scenarios I’ve come across this year,” she said.
“Risks are calculated. Humans are inferior.”
Ms Appel said she trusted the technology but would be cautious during a “danger zone of adoption”.
“I don’t think I’ll hand myself over to the machine until there is a critical mass of similar vehicles on the road.”
On her test drive, Ms Appel enabled the XC90’s autonomous driving mode.
“I was so frightened. The car in front of me stopped quite short … [the Volvo] literally pulled up to a hard stop on the highway,” she said.
“I had my finger tips on the wheel, but I did nothing.”
With the current driverless features, the Queensland mother of two said she felt safer knowing the car could drive itself even for a few seconds if needed.
In reality, it will be a while before we can legally take our hands off the wheel.
NSW Roads Minister Melinda Pavey said the Arizona crash would not deter driverless vehicle trials currently happening in the state.
“We are doing things appropriately and safe here in NSW which is why the drivers always need to be in charge of the vehicle and have their hand on the wheels at this stage,” she said.
Will we even need steering wheels?
No, according to General Motors.
Mr Christensen said, in theory, complete driverless technology was already a reality “in some fashion”.
“The fully autonomous ones are not on pubic roads and the ones that are on roads are not fully autonomous yet,” he said.
So, just how quickly will those two scenarios converge?
In the United States, GM recently promoted a model of Cruise that had no steering wheel or pedals.
The manufacturer has applied to the Department of Transportation to put that car on public roads in 2019.