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Consumers Interested in Self-Driving Cars Despite Industry, Government Obfuscation

by Roger Lanctot | Jun 10, 2013

Google and its self-driving cars (SDCs) are scaring the wits out of the automotive industry. There’s nothing major car makers would like to see more than a swift departure of Google from the automotive domain. The next best outcome for auto makers, therefore, is to discourage or delay Google-led initiatives like SDC.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has come to the rescue with guidelines for states in the U.S. that may be considering allowing self-driving cars to operate. (Google has stated that it does not support the NHTSA guidelines.)  These guidelines boil down to:

·         Simple transition from automated to driver control

·         Be able to detect, record and inform driver if the system malfunctions

·         Technology does not disable federally required safety features

·         Records information in the event of a crash

More details are available:

There are currently two paths toward self-driving cars.  One path, the one with which more consumers will be familiar, is the path defined by Google’s autonomous car – and already familiar from multiple DARPA-led challenges where various organizations and university programs create autonomous vehicles competing to cross the desert or operate in city traffic.

The other self-drive car path is based on 802.11p DSRC (Dedicated Short Range Communication) technology – now being tested at the University of Michigan Safety Pilot study -  DSRC is the technology behind vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure technology intended to enhance vehicle safety by creating a network of vehicle communication for the purpose of eliminating all driver-related collisions or approximately 80%-90% of accidents.

As a result, what is emerging is a private initiative currently “led” by Google – as the first company to put a self-driving car on the road – competing with a vision of autonomous driving ultimately enabled by a government mandated DSRC module.  NHTSA’s recommendation that states only allow SDCs for testing purposes only for the next four years buys time for the auto industry to “catch up” with Google’s massive headstart in the marketplace and the minds of consumers.  (Audi notably has its own autonomous car operating in the U.S.)

While the Google car is notorious for its use of a rooftop lidar device reportedly having a cost of $70,000, the expectation is that the size and cost of this hardware will both shrink rapidly.  Meanwhile, NHTSA is pushing toward the eventual mandate of a DSRC module in every car intended ultimately enable self-driving cars along with a range of other applications focused on safety and traffic management.

The auto industry’s response to Google’s private commercial initiative was evident in survey results released last week at the Telematics Update 2013 event.  The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers (AAM) released survey results showing that 33% of consumers think the idea of self-driving cars is a good one, but the AAM chose to focus on the 42% of respondents who said it was a bad idea.  A further 24% were unsure what to think.

To this analyst, the idea that any consumers at all viewed self-driving cars as an attractive proposition is big news.  It’s not as if Google launched its car in response to overwhelming demand.  The move was an intuitive one driven by personal experience – more and more people find driving intrusive and unpleasant and will welcome the SDC concept.

The AAM findings go on to report that 75% of respondents said they were very concerned that companies would collect personal data and 70% said they were very/somewhat concerned this information would be shared with the government.  AAM also said 81% of respondents reported they were either very or somewhat concerned that hackers could gain control of self-driving cars.

The irony here is that a Google-type SDC is far less likely to be sharing data with the government or to be exposed to hackers than a car with a government-mandated DSRC module.  Who is a consumer more likely to trust these days:  Google, with whom hundreds of millions of consumers are already sharing their data; or the government (ie. NHTSA), which has recently been caught in a range of over-reaching personal information intrusions in recent weeks.

My money is on private, commercial initiatives, such as those driven by Google, Audi, Continental and other car makers and their suppliers.  The impact of the government mandate approach has been to narrow the field of potential participants in the DSRC space, freezing out innovation and investment.

Further working against the long-term success of DSRC has been the inability of the leaders in the space to find and adopt practical applications for the technology.  In 10 years there has been little or no commercial deployment of the technology.  It appears that even the Federal Communication Commission in the U.S. – the agency responsible for allocating the required spectrum – has lost patience with the NHTSA program – choosing not to “protect” the spectrum from unlicensed use.

The first green shoots of DSRC deployment are beginning to appear, with Kapsch announcing a self-parking implementation for commercial vehicles.  Let’s hope this is just the beginning.  Next steps ought to include deployment of DSRC on emergency vehicles (for intersection collision avoidance – 9,000 people killed annually in the U.S. at intersections) and fleets.  But 10 years of testing with no deployment raises serious questions regarding the management of the DSRC program.

NHTSA and AAM ought to be fostering not discouraging development and deployment of SDC technology.  Telling states to shift into a testing-only mode is hardly the kind of bold innovation-fostering push the industry needs.  With 33% of consumers telling AAM they think SDC is a good idea, it is clear there is a market for the technology.

Simple directives are best.  All NHTSA really ought to say at this point is that a driver must be in the driver seat at all times and the driver is still responsible for the operation of the vehicle.  One sentence, rather than 14 pages of regulatory hoo-hah.


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