The Robots are Coming!

April 14th, 2014

I often get a strong reaction from clients when I suggest that they should plan to get rid of their car on their 85th birthday. I use age 85 arbitrarily, but the reason I do this is to get my clients thinking about what their life is going to look like when they can no longer drive.

Gov. Brown Signs Legislation At Google HQ That Allows Testing Of Autonomous Vehicles

In the meantime, there have been some dramatic developments in the automotive world leading toward fully automatic cars which will change the lives of those who can no longer drive for themselves.

Development of automated vehicles (AV’s) has been underway for years. Antilock braking systems and electronic stability control have been mandatory for all cars manufactured in North America since 2012. Rear view cameras and blind spot detection systems are expected to become mandatory in 2014.

Other technologies that have reached the demonstration stage include adaptive cruise control and lane departure warning systems. BMW has demonstrated a model that can parallel park completely automatically. The new Mercedes Benz S Class has all the hardware and software systems required to give the car the ability to drive itself.

In a world where every car is self-driving the transformation will be startling. Examples include:

  • 93% of auto accidents are caused by human error. Accident rates and presumably auto insurance rates should drop sharply.
  • Trucks will become automatic as well. Statistics Canada reports that there are 260,000 truck drivers and 90,000 delivery and courier drivers. A lot of those jobs will disappear.

The major hurdles to be overcome before AV’s are widespread concern regulation and determination of liability but work is already underway in these areas. Ontario has announced a pilot programme for AV’s that will run over the next 5 years. California will have the regulations for self-driving cars in place by the end of 2014.

A simple example illustrates the complex liability issues. Assume that AV’s will be programmed to operate no faster than the speed limit and that the driver can disconnect the “auto pilot” and drive faster. If a car is running on autopilot and a crash occurs, clearly the manufacturer bears a large share of the responsibility. If the autopilot has been disconnected and an accident occurs, the liability shifts to the driver. Think of the scenario on the 401 where the AV’s are going 100 kmh and everyone else is doing 110 or 120 kmh. How long would it take the AV driver to disconnect the autopilot?

For those skeptics who doubt we’ll ever see fully automated vehicles, consider the following:

  • Google has a fleet of AV’s that have driven 700,000 miles without an accident never mind a ticket.
  • Rio Tinto is running a fleet of 40 robot trucks in Western Australia. They operate 24 hours a day and have travelled over one million kilometres.
  • In May 2014, Google unveiled its self-driving car. It has no steering wheel or brake and acceleration pedals.

AV’s are expected to become widespread as early as 2025, but until then, traffic will consist of a mix of automatic and non-automatic cars.

Google’s experience illustrates the challenge of such a mixed environment. Google currently transports its employees between buildings on its campus in automated cars. Apparently employees had gotten into the habit of sitting in the back seat where it was more comfortable to work with a laptop. This came to an end when another passing driver was so startled to see a driverless car they drove off the road. Google had to impose a rule on its employees that someone always had to sit in the driver’s seat.