I've heard pundits say that "a child born today may never learn to drive" (aside from the phenomenon of millennials being less interested in driving). Both Nissan and GM, as well as some other car makers, say they expect to market self-driving cars by 2020 and some pundits are saying they will be mandatory by 2035.
A study by a professional research company called Lux Research offers market research to show that's really a lot of hype. Note this is research they sell, so their survival depends on being right often enough to get repeat business. Design News extracts some coverage from that report for us.
”The $102 Billion Opportunity in Partial Automation for Cars" contends that autopilot features in vehicles will grow sharply over the next 15 years, creating huge markets for automotive sensors and software. “Partial autonomy is coming,” Maryanna Saenko, Lux Research Inc. analyst and author of the report, told Design News. “By 2030, it will very likely be common in mid- and high-level cars. But the idea of the car picking you up at your house, driving you anywhere and dropping you off -- that’s still a long way off.”They include this graphic in the article (not very high resolution) showing that even out at the end of the projections in 2030, fully autonomous cars (darkest blue) don't even show up. The larger, lighter blue area is "enhanced assist" technologies.
For consumers, the result will be a fast-growing variety of new semi-autonomous features, Saenko told us. “The first step is to have autopilot,” she said. “Not where the car drives endlessly in a straight line, but where it can deal with traffic, merge in and out of lanes, and find the fastest route on the highway.” In subsequent steps, engineers will develop vehicles that can handle suburban and urban driving.Cruise control speed-regulating devices have been around for decades, and I've had one since 1990. On long trips they make driving more like just steering; just keep it between the lines. My first car with cruise control just kept the speed constant. It also regulated at about 2 mph over the speed you were going when you turned it on. My next car, in 2004, would change the speed in 1 mph steps. I'm fairly sure that was digital cruise control. Autopilot, even if it just kept you between the lines would be convenient, but the ability to do these other tasks she refers to get very close to chauffeur level.
Saenko said technical and regulatory hurdles will complicate the transition from partial autonomy to full autonomy, however. A “likely” scenario described in the report calls for just a handful of fully autonomous cars, operating in highly restricted environments, by 2030. “We have to address how technically difficult it is to have a car drive itself and deal with the errant situations that can happen during driving,” she said. “It’s really about the technology getting competent and reliable enough to deal with all possibilities.”I should have said, "get very close to chauffeur level, except..." Except that you are ultimately still in control in the car and will be responsible if it does anything wrong. That means if your autopilot hits a pedestrian, it's the same as if you were driving. If you're expecting a day when you can get in the car and read, play games, or conjugate Indian verbs with your girl/boy friend, that's just not happening soon. Barring new technologies or real breakthroughs. I actually wrote about this aspect already, so I'll reprise something from just a couple of months ago.
This concerns me because in many ways, driving a car is considerably more complex than flying a plane, yet airplane autopilots get really serious amounts of money dumped into certifying them safe. Even with that effort and expense, aircraft automatic control systems will still get confused and do the wrong things. Pilots talk about trying to stay alert at all times should the autopilot hand control back, but one of the disadvantages of the modern autopilots is that they're so good pilots get out of practice flying. Will self driving cars caught in a critical moment hand control off to someone reading a book on their tablet, listening to music or otherwise engaged with people in the car?Driving a car in a city environment is more complex than flying a plane. Nobody is standing around on a cloud and steps out in front of a plane. There are no planes sitting at a corner that decide to dart in front of you. There are no bicycles going a quarter of your speed, or old farm tractors going even slower. The fact the aircraft on similar routes maintain separation by flying similar speeds helps reduce the chance of an overtaking accident. Yet with all these things going for them aircraft autopilots still get confused. We're going to have to go through some years of weeding those failures out of autonomous cars.