A Taxi without a Driver

November 2016

If you're a regular Uber customer in Pittsburgh, you can opt to take your ride in a self-driving car. Yep, there will still be someone in the driver's seat who takes control when necessary, but Uber insists that in the near future, their taxis will pilot themselves.

Uber, which began their offering in mid-September, wasn't even the first. A company in Singapore rolled out a small number of similar self-driving taxis several weeks earlier. Their goal is to have a large fleet of fully self-driving taxis in Singapore by 2018 — with the practical benefit that it will help reduce the serious traffic congestion there.

Not so long ago Google's self-driving cars being tested were a novelty — and something that seemed like it might become a reality only in the distant future. Now most of the automakers are planning to sell self-driving cars. And many of them have prototypes on the road right now.

How does the U.S. government feel about this? They're behind it 100%. In September federal auto safety regulators released their guidelines for self-driving cars. While putting in place a 15-point safety assessment for manufacturers, at the same time they gave the industry a clear message: full speed ahead.

Why so bullish? The main reason, which may seem counterintuitive, is safety. The evidence so far suggests that these vehicles, filled with sensors and computing power, will actually be safer. I'd certainly feel safer knowing it would be less likely that a texting teen or a drunken driver would be meeting me head on.

In fact, self-driving cars are already available for you to buy. The famed electric vehicle, the Tesla, has an Autopilot mode. Turn it on, and your Tesla will drive itself. When you're ready to hit the road, you can summon your car and it will drive itself out of the garage and be sitting there waiting to head out.

Once you're on the road, Autopilot can take over. Tesla, however, doesn't want people to cede complete control to the system. If you take your hands off the steering wheel when you're on the highway, you'll get an audible warning. If the system is forced to give you three warnings within an hour, Autopilot is automatically disabled until you restart your car.

And that's a good thing, as a review in the New York Times makes clear. On a test drive, the journalist found that several times Autopilot did seemingly dangerous things such as veering toward the center divider when the highway markings weren't clear or heading toward the curb because it wasn't able to handle a really tight curve.

So what's it good for? The company says that it's best for long drives on low-access freeways, making it much less tiring by doing a lot of the steering and braking for you. The Times reviewer found it especially useful, though, in slow-moving, heavy stop-and-go traffic in Los Angeles. He said it was much less strenuous because Autopilot flawlessly handled the constant braking and accelerating while staying in lane.

Plus, in slow traffic such as this, Autopilot dispenses with the audible warning system. Feel free to take your hands off the while.

What's coming? In September Ford began demonstrating their fleet of 10 self-driving Ford Fusions that are outfitted with cameras, computers, radar, lidar (like radar but with laser beams), and more. They plan to start selling their driverless cars within five years, with a focus on producing robotic taxis that are best suited for slow traffic in cities that have clear traffic markings and controls.

GM and the ride-hailing service Lyft are planning self-driving cars. Apple is also reportedly developing self-driving technology. Mercedes-Benz and Audi have been testing prototype vehicles since 2014, and Nissan since 2013. Daimler is testing self-driving trucks and an autonomous mode in the new Mercedes E-Class.

Plus, the Royal Navy has an autonomous speedboat, CNH Industrial has an autonomous tractor, and Airbus is even working on autonomous flying taxis, with a goal of having a prototype in the air by 2017.

Oh, and one more thing. Ford's vision of the self-driving vehicles that they want to launch by 2021 also includes vehicles that will come without steering wheels, brake pedals, or gas pedals. Really. Unlike the driver-assist functions targeted for individual car ownership, these vehicles will be targeted toward cities and intended to be a supplement to mass transit.

There are security concerns, of course. Already hackers have shown that they can take over a Jeep, wirelessly cutting the brakes and transmission. As one expert in security said, a car "is just a big computer you sit in." Uh oh.

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© 2016 by Jim Karpen, Ph.D.

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