Robot cars: The autonomous vehicles are coming, or are they?

Car makers appear to be abandoning the idea of fully self-driving cars

Visitors to the recent the French Open Tennis Championships at Roland Garros were given the option to catch a ride on a driverless Renault bus to the stadium.

Autonomous vehicles are not only coming, they already exist. In fact, visitors to the recent French Open Tennis Championships at Roland Garros were given the option to park in the event’s P2 car park, just on the edge of the Bois de Boulogne, and catch a ride on an orange-and-white-striped Renault bus to the stadium.

That bus, as anyone who climbed aboard soon noticed, did not have a driver. It was, in fact, a fully autonomous service, developed and designed in concert with WeRide, a start-up that specialises in robotic driving applications. The stripy bus trundled tennis fans, under silent electric power and the unblinking robotic control of its various sensors, to Roland Garros, or back to the car park via the Place de la Porte d’Auteuil. The bus itself is based on the same chassis and Renault’s recently-launched electric Master van.

And there you have it. Autonomous cars live.

Well, not quite. You see, in the same breath that Renault announced this R2D2 bus service (ironically, Roland Garros himself, a famed pilot, would probably have wanted nothing to do with such a thing) the French car-making giant also said, quite openly, that the idea of all of us whizzing about in autonomous, robotic cars is probably dead.

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While agreeing with the general statement that autonomous level five (as defined by the Society of American Engineers) is the only level at which you can actually take the steering wheel out and let the car cope entirely by itself, Renault is also admitting that it now sees it as very unlikely that such technology will ever allow us to individually whizz around the M50 while reading a book or watching Netflix.

“In the case of individual vehicles, Renault Group is concentrating its efforts on the level-two or even leve-two-plus level, with several driving assistances that are at the top level of the market and make its vehicles safe and pleasant to drive with confidence, such as contextual cruise control or lane-keeping assist, or soon the automatic overtaking function. Although assisted, the driver remains responsible for driving” said Christophe Lavauzelle, Renault’s corporate communication manager.

“There is a significant technological complexity gap between level L2 automation and level L3 autonomy, because the vehicle must be able to operate safely in complex environments with limited driver supervision. At this stage, the induced cost to be borne by customers, in relation to the driving benefits, would make demand insufficient or even anecdotal.”

Renault’s seemingly final decision on robotic cars is part of a general continuum across the car industry, one of retreat from previous promises of entirely autonomous driving, and a general retrenchment back towards aiding a human driver instead

However, Renault is hedging its bets. Lavauzelle said: “At the same time, the group is making sure that the architecture of its vehicles can evolve towards the autonomous car if expectations, regulations or the cost of technologies make this breakthrough feasible.”

Renault seems to believe that robot driving, while not for cars, is certainly for buses: “On the other hand, when it comes to public transportation, Renault Group sees the relevance of offering autonomous vehicles, with an annual need estimated at several thousand minibuses over the next few years,” said Lavauzelle.

Renault’s seemingly final decision on robotic cars is part of a general continuum across the car industry, one of retreat from previous promises of entirely autonomous driving, and a general retrenchment back towards aiding a human driver instead.

VW has promised autonomous ride-hailing via its MOIA offshoot, with robotic cars already racking up mileage around Hanover, but these – like Renault’s Roland Garros service – run on distinct, predetermined routes rather than picking you up at your door.

In the United States, robotic taxi services such as Lyft have experienced multiple issues, including (thankfully non-fatal) crashes and confused software leading to cars simply stopping in the midst of traffic while they try to work out their next move.

That leads to questions about how autonomous software would cope with being asked to share streets with existing human drivers, as it would have to at least in the interim. One industry expert suggested to The Irish Times that any robotic car unleashed on to the streets of Beijing would soon be going nowhere as canny local drivers would work out that they could barge in front of it, forcing its sensors into an endless loop of yielding.

BMW is one company which is slowly shying further away from fully robotic driving and is working on making its driver-assisting software better at helping out fallible, fleshy drivers.

BMW’s latest software allows you to drive for extended periods without holding the wheel. Doing that may sound counter-intuitive to safety, but actually in the round it may make for improvements.

The BMW assisted driving set-up automatically adjusts for the posted speed limit and can now execute lane changes and overtakes on dual carriageways and motorways, using its cameras and radar sensors to monitor the road around you, and suggesting an overtake when it’s safe and prudent to do so.

All you have to do is glance at the door mirror, and the eye-tracking software that’s operating the camera staring back at you from the dashboard will initiate the change, flashing the indicator as it does so.

The fully-hands-off driving system, which isn’t legal yet in Ireland and won’t be until new legislation is enacted, is already up and running in Germany, the US and Canada and allows you to take your hands off the wheel (but not your eyes off the road – eye-tracking camera, remember?) for pretty much as long as you want on motorways.

How does that make things safer? Well, the general idea is that the computer will make fewer mistakes than a human driver, and a driver who’s not having to concentrate so hard for the long, boring motorway miles might well be better rested and more alert when they have to take control again and drive through town or on a twisty country road.

You might think that such technology is a mere hop and skip to letting the computer take over entirely, and allowing you to snooze or read a book while the car goes fully autonomous, but Armin Gräter, BMW’s director of digitalisation and automated driving, says that’s actually not the case.

“This is still a level-two system” says Gräter, referring to those same SAE levels of automated driving, running from one (none at all) to five (the machines have taken over). “I would say that the level of effort and development for this system is only about 20 per cent of what you would need to get to level three,” Gräter says.

“It’s a really big step, because suddenly we as a company would be responsible for what happens on the road. The systems in this car can cope with maybe 98 per cent of all driving scenarios, but to get to 100 per cent is a big jump.” Gräter tells me that BMW’s board has pledged not to release fully autonomous cars until they can be conclusively proven to be safer than human drivers. That proof may well be some time coming.

A human driver, an attentive one at any rate, can look three, four, five cars ahead and spot the brake lights coming on early, and be prepared and ready to stop much sooner

Or possibly not come at all. A couple of things Gräter tells me gives me at least a little pause in admiration for the cleverness of the robotic driving systems. First off, the radar in the grille can actually look as far as 400 metres ahead along the road, but in spite of that and the camera which is clever enough to be able to register that a traffic light is red, not green, the BMW can still adjust its speed, or brake to a stop, only when the car immediately in front does so.

A human driver, an attentive one at any rate, can look three, four, five cars ahead and spot the brake lights coming on early, and be prepared and ready to stop much sooner. Equally, Gräter lets slip that careful monitoring of drivers using existing level-two automated driving aids indicates that even when you’re letting the car take the strain, just resting your hands on the steering wheel – as you legally must right now in Ireland to reassure the computer that you’re still in charge – changes a driver’s brain patterns and keeps them far more engaged and alert than going hands-off and letting the computers do all the work.

Trying the BMW system out in Germany showed a couple of significant flaws. While it works, and allows you to take your hands off the wheel for a considerable amount of time, it is astonishingly rigid about where your eyes are. There’s an infrared sensor behind the steering wheel which, in the BMW i5 in which we were testing the system, is very sensitive to both wheel position (the rim of the wheel blocks the sensor unless you’re happy with a high-set, arms-up driving position) and it can struggle to read your eyes properly if you’re wearing polarised sunglasses.

Even with these two issues surmounted, the eye-tracking software is staggeringly sensitive. Trying to take even the slightest glance out of the side windows, even taking a straightforward check of your mirrors, elicits a series of annoyed klaxons from the system and a rapid return of full control of the car to you.

In reality, the hands-off system is just not worth the bother. It’s too rigid in its detection set-up, and anyway, when reduced to a more simple adaptive cruise control function, it can still offer you up automated lane changes which you can indeed confirm with a glance at the appropriate mirror, and which works quite nicely. You just need to keep your hands on the wheel.

Which seems like a suitable thing to do, as, by the looks of things, the robots won’t be taking over any time soon.

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