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The Journal Gazette

  • File Traffic backs up on Interstate 69 near Illinois Road after an accident in January 2017. Fewer such tie-ups are expected as driverless vehicles multiply.

  • Faucher

  • Busse

  • Hart

Sunday, February 04, 2018 1:00 am

Future of autonomous vehicles is nearly here

SHERRY SLATER | The Journal Gazette

Imagine a future where you spend your 30-minute commute reading your firm's latest marketing report and texting business associates to exchange ideas.

After arriving at the office, you send your driverless, electric vehicle on its own to get a car wash, park at a recharging station for a few hours, swing by Kroger to pick up groceries ordered online and then return to the office in time for the trip home.

Well, just like objects in your driver's side mirror, that future is closer than it appears. Last month, General Motors unveiled an autonomous car that didn't even have a steering wheel.

The time seems right to explore some questions and answers about autonomous vehicles.

Q. How soon will driverless cars be on the road? And how soon until all cars on the road are driverless?

A. They're already on the road in some cities, including Pittsburgh, where Gus Faucher lives. 

Faucher, PNC Bank's chief national economist, said the vehicles are a fairly common sight there after Uber unleashed a few experimental self-driving cars in the Pennsylvania city in September 2016.

The ride-hailing company initially required two employees to be in every car when they were first on the road – one to take the wheel, if necessary, and one to monitor the technology in action.

Waymo, which started as Google's self-driving car program, is testing an autonomous car, ride hailing service in Arizona. Other companies are also working on the technology, including Ford, General Motors, Tesla, Intel, IBM and Apple.

Faucher predicted fully self-driving cars will be available to consumers in 2020. He expects they will become common in big cities before mid-sized and small communities. Long commutes and traffic jams are a bigger problem in urban areas, he said.

But he thinks it will be at least a couple of decades before autonomous vehicles outnumber traditional ones.

A study by IHS Markit, a research firm in London, found the average age of vehicles on U.S. roads is 11.5 years. Record auto sales in recent years mean it could be a decade or more before many consumers are in the market for a new car.

“I think it's going to be a very gradual process,” Faucher said.

Q. How do driverless cars stay on the road? And how do they avoid hitting pedestrians and other cars?

A. Credit a little something called “lidar” for keeping autonomous cars from hitting obstacles and each other. Autonomous vehicles also rely on cameras to see lane markings, speed limit signs and traffic lights.

Lidar, or light detection and ranging, uses multiple pulsed lasers to measure distances. When a car or tree or person is up ahead, the laser bounces off the object and returns to the vehicle. By measuring how much time it takes for the light to return, the sensor system can calculate how far ahead the object is.

The system isn't limited to items directly in its path. Lasers are beamed out in 360 degrees surrounding the self-driving car, allowing sensors to calculate when a vehicle is approaching an intersection. By continuously emitting those pulsed lights, the senor system can calculate the speed of the approaching vehicle and whether it is slowing down to stop.

“Wired,” the technology magazine, last week published an online article that listed some of the drawbacks with lidar, which typically appears as a spinning object on top of a self-driving car.

“It's ... crazy expensive, hard to manufacture at scale and nowhere near robust enough for a life of potholes and extreme temperatures,” the article states, adding that investors are spending millions to address those issues.

We aren't talking about science fiction here. Numerous advances in automotive technology already have made it to market. It's now common to see cars that can parallel park themselves, correct the course of a vehicle wandering from its lane, or detect an object in its path and automatically apply the brakes.

Q. Are autonomous cars safe?

A. Automakers are working hard to earn consumers' trust. But they have miles to go with some skeptics before they get there.

Despite rapid advances in technology, consumers' confidence in such vehicles is lagging. Survey results released last month by AAA show more than 3 of 5 U.S. drivers would be afraid to ride in a fully autonomous vehicle.

In January, GM introduced its latest version of an autonomous car, the modified Chevy Bolt. Those vehicles don't have steering wheels, accelerators or brakes.

It's one thing to cede control of a car when you have the ability to steer around a major pothole or hit the brakes to avoid a collision. It's another level of trust not to have those fall-back options.

“Yeah, it makes me nervous,” Faucher said of not having access to a steering wheel or braking pedal. “But, you know, people make mistakes.”

He's optimistic that autonomous vehicles will be better driven than traditional vehicles. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data show that human error is responsible for 94 percent of traffic deaths.

Trois Hart has been reading up on driverless vehicles out of personal curiosity. But she isn't ready to give up all control in the car. Hart would like to cruise down the highway with the option of grabbing the steering wheel or putting on the brakes.

The local public relations professional thinks consumers will jump on board when they understand the convenience partially self-driving vehicles offer.

“Within five years, I believe, all the new cars sold will have a wide variety of autonomous features,” Hart said.

Waymo is partnering with numerous organizations on self-driving education for consumers.  “Let's Talk Self Driving,” the online campaign, answers questions and stresses safety.

Sponsors include Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the National Safety Council, the Foundation for Senior Living and the Foundation for Blind Children.

MADD officials said in a statement that the technology “hold(s) incredible potential to completely eliminate drunk driving.”

In a world with self-driving cars, parents wouldn't have to stay up worrying that a teen missing curfew got into a car accident. They might have other reasons to worry, but that won't be one of them.

Q. How would the widespread adoption of driverless vehicles affect the U.S. economy?

A. Faucher expects autonomous vehicles will spark skyrocketing productivity because people won't have to keep their eyes on the road anymore.

“If I'm going to work, maybe I could read something or make phone calls,” he said. 

Faucher also expects commutes to become shorter. The majority of accidents are caused by driver error. Once drivers are removed from the equation, cars should move much faster on interstates and in busy cities because fewer accidents will mean fewer traffic tie-ups, he said.

“One person changing lanes at a bad time can slow down hundreds of vehicles,” he added.

And if cars spend less time on the road, fuel emissions will fall. That's good for the environment, Faucher said.

Entire populations could also become more mobile, including people unable to drive because of vision loss, muscle weakness or other physical deficiencies.

Fewer accidents mean fewer people would land in the hospital from car crashes. That would lower health care costs, Faucher said.

But once driverless cars become common, some sectors will grapple with what to do with former professional drivers and other affected workers.

“It opens up a lot of questions about what do we want our future to look like,” Faucher said. “The society as a whole benefits, but it will hurt some individuals.”

Q. So adopting autonomous vehicles will lead to widespread job loss? Then why should we pursue the technology?

A. Professional drivers might curse the technology, but self-driving vehicles are forging ahead. The best today's drivers can do is prepare for it, experts say.

Last month, the Teamsters union gave United Parcel Service Inc. its initial contract proposal. Included was a demand that UPS cannot invest in driverless trucks, which would likely lead to job cuts for the package delivery service.

Faucher sees opportunity for drivers to be retrained for other, in-demand jobs. He urges people in the transportation and education sectors to start planning now for changing needs.

Those changes could also affect the auto manufacturing industry and auto repair shops.

Assuming that predictions of safer car trips holds true, cars would last longer. Every year, a percentage of vehicles is sent to salvage yards after being totaled in accidents. Those that aren't totaled keep body shops busy.

Declining demand could push those workers into other career paths. The workforce will need more engineers and software programmers, for example.

When it comes to General Motors' Allen County truck assembly plant, Faucher sees long-term demand for the operation. Pickups don't tend to be a vanity vehicle. People buy them because they need to haul something, Faucher said.

“Pickup trucks certainly aren't going away,” he said.

So, even if GM introduces a line of self-driving Sierras and Silverados, local workers would still be needed to build them.

Q. How will driverless technology affect the insurance industry? Will I be held responsible if my autonomous car hits somebody?

A. KPMC, a global accounting firm, has forecast that the auto insurance sector could shrivel to less than half its current size within 25 years. Fewer accidents translate to lower premiums – or less income for insurers.

Some insurance companies, including Cincinnati Financial and Mercury Genera, have already warned the Securities and Exchange Commission in filings that driverless cars threaten their business models, according to Business Insider, a website that reports business and financial news.

In KPMC's white paper, the firm projects the insurance industry will be profoundly affected by driverless technology sooner than insurance executives expect.

“The implications for the insurance industry will likely be profound – the most disruptive since the industry's inception,” the report states. “There will be significant tactical demands – from setting new pricing schedules to updating policy forms and defining legal claim approaches. ... And perhaps not at first apparent, costs will likely need to be sliced to reflect a much smaller volume of business.”

As far as responsibility for accidents, Faucher said, the legal system will need to evolve to answer those questions.

But it's reasonable to assume that manufacturers of fully autonomous cars could be held liable for accidents caused by a defect in its software programming, for example.

If, however, an accident was caused by the vehicle owner's failure to maintain or update required technology, he could be legally liable.

Q. How much are autonomous cars expected to cost?

A. Automakers are jockeying to be the first to introduce a safe and affordable autonomous vehicle that incites widespread public – and safety officials' – acceptance.

The initial higher cost will limit the products to higher-income consumers.

But once manufacturers establish a market, the technology will go into mass production and prices will drop quickly, experts predict, based on plummeting prices of laptop computers, big-screen TVs and other high-tech gadgets within a few years after they hit stores.

IHS Markit, an automotive industry analyst, predicted autonomous cars will be available for about $10,000 more than traditional cars by 2025. But that cost difference will fall to about $3,000 in the following decade, the firm said.

Even if the price hovers about the sticker for traditional cars, consumers might make up the difference in convenience and savings elsewhere. For example, it's unlikely anyone would choose to pay $50 or more for long-term airport parking if he can instead send his car home and signal it to pick him up on arrival.

Q. Won't we be losing something fundamental to the American experience with the shift to driverless cars? What about the lure of the open highway?

A. That depends on how old – and how sentimental – you are. Anyone in elementary school or younger doesn't know a world where this technology isn't a reality.

For baby boomers and Generation X, no one is forcing them to make the switch. If you love driving, you can keep buying cars that allow you to be fully in charge at all times.

Keith Busse is in the latter camp.

The chairman and co-founder of Steel Dynamics Inc. owns about 60 cars in his collection, which includes Corvettes and muscle cars.

“Real car guys like the roar of the engines,” Busse said. “I can't imagine life without being behind a steering wheel. But, I'll tell you, you see some people on the road who shouldn't be behind a steering wheel.”

If those folks owned driverless cars, the roads might be safer, he added.

Faucher enjoys driving his convertible. Even so, he said, when going to work, driving to his kids' school events or visiting his parents in Philadelphia, Faucher finds driving boring or stressful. So having the option to let technology take the wheel would be welcome.

And there's another reality: drivers age. Their vision dims, their response times slow and stiff neck muscles can make it difficult or impossible to check over their shoulders for traffic approaching from behind.

In those situations, autonomous technology can be a lifesaver.

As for the thrill of taking a road trip, such adventures might become even more attractive when “drivers” can settle down for a long nap with the rest of the passengers. 

Instead of taking turns driving, everyone in the car could play cards or other games.

The possibilities are almost endless.

sslater@jg.net