Rubin: Buckle up – self-driving cars are on the way

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

Simple device, the toaster. It’s one of the most rudimentary appliances in your house. And in a few years, it breaks.

Wonderful tool, your computer. Easy to use, incredibly versatile. And every so often, it gives you the Blue Screen of Death.

Eventually, mechanical objects fail. Inevitably, computers malfunction. And we’re supposed to trust them to drive our cars for us?

Eventually, yes. Down the road, say some of the wise people at the North American International Auto Show, we will see autonomous driving.

Drivers will become mere passengers, and the most important safety tool in the vehicle will be the absence of hands and feet on the controls.

We may as well sit back and accept it.

Autonomous driving will arrive in stages – the first or second of which is already upon us. It’ll have multiple levels of redundancies, and probably even a fail safe to guide your car to the curb if everything else goes kaflooey.

It’ll likely be here by 2025 or 2030, says Pat Bassett, the vice president of North American research for components maker Denso International America.

And yes, everyone has considered shorted toasters and blue screens of death. That’s what the redundancies are for.

“We’re talking about millions of miles of testing,” Bassett says. About limitations, too: bad weather could muddle the most advanced system, the same way it can defeat a collision warning system today.

True, it’s hard to picture self-driving cars when airbags not only fail, they killed people. True, there might never be a full Jetsons Mode, where your car picks you up at your door and whisks you to work while you busy yourself with other things.

But Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx is scheduled to visit the auto show today during preview week at Cobo Center, and he’s planning to talk about eliminating barriers and accelerating the development of autonomous cars.

Buckle your seat belt.

Start your engines

The German parts maker ZF has a clear acrylic vehicle on display, the better to show the camera inset above the windshield and the radar system on the sides above the front bumpers – components of an autonomous ride.

Many of the needed systems already exist, says Dusseldorf-based Alois Seewald, the head of the company’s automated driving team. The trick is perfecting them, backstopping them, creating more of them, and convincing the public that it wants them.

“I would like to go home, the weather conditions are OK, my car brings me home,” he says. “This is the benefit.”

It seems obvious, but there are inevitably speed bumps along the way.

Studies, for instance, have shown that it can take eight seconds for a driver using autopilot to retake the controls, enough time for multiple disasters when computer-aided responses are measured in milliseconds.

Even when all systems are go, does it truly count as progress if the driver has to stand ready to leap into action? Will the first drivers have to sit poised with their hands above the steering wheel?

Consider drivers in cars with adaptive cruise control, the technology that slows and accelerates a vehicle as traffic allows.

“The first time,” said ZF’s John Wilkerson, “your foot kind of hovers over the brake pedal.”

Eventually, though, you get used to something. The next step, says Denso’s Bassett, is that you demand it.

A second set of eyes

Early in what’s seen as a four- or five-level ascension to autonomy, the executive editor of already concedes the benefits.

As much as he loves driving, Joe Wiesenfelder has a miserable commute in Chicago. With adaptive cruise control and lane departure warnings in whatever he’s testing, “I arrive much more rested.”

The ultimate, more lofty goal of autonomous technology is to save lives. While bump shop owners may be wary, carmakers seem eager to embrace the concept – though drivers, the ultimate beneficiaries, tend to sound hesitant.

They’re the parties who bring up toasters and blue screens, an argument Wiesenfelder gently deflates with an eye on the greater good.

“Do I feel like I need a forward collision prevention system?” he asks. “No. Do I want everyone else to have it?