Self-driving cars are still unrealistic, says CES panel
Autonomous car have been making a lot of noise as of late, especially at the CES 2014. However, the noise, seemingly, may not be loud enough to usher in radical industry innovation and inventiveness to bring it to reality. The vision of a self-driving car will remain as it is in the near future, a vision.
The CES panel's accord might have been summarized by Elmar Frickenstein, BMW's chief of EVP Electrics and Electronics. Faced with the "critical issue" of reconciling the average car's lifespan of seven years with the barely 18-month lifecycle of a consumer electronics device, as though peering through that icy windshield, Frickenstein said, "I don't see any solution." With that, he issued an appeal to the electronics industry: "We need your help."
Henry Beizh, chief technology strategist for Kia Motors, was even blunter about this disconnect between the fast-moving CE world, in which people want a new gadget every Christmas, and the slower automotive cycle, in which car-buyers expect their vehicles to last. "It's like a bad marriage," he said.
But it's looking like an arranged marriage in which neither bride nor groom has a choice.
Among the panelists were delegates from three of the many carmakers displaying their wares at this year's auto-intensive CES. They expressed pride in the "autonomous" functions that are migrating into their new models, thanks to advanced electronic technologies.
Among these, noted BMW's Frickenstein, are a multitude of in-car cameras that eliminate blind spots, monitor the driver's attention, and help with parking, among other tasks. Safety improvements include active cruise control and automatic emergency braking.
But the goal, as everyone conceded, is a car that serves as a sort of electronic chauffeur, leaving the driver, as expressed by Mark Dipko, Hyundai's director of brand and product strategy, "to take his hands off the wheel and read the paper." Dipko admitted that this consummation is still "a long ways away."
Frickenstein said this outcome will proceed incrementally, with a car able to perform relatively simple functions like finding its own space in a parking garage, perhaps by 2020. "This is no Big Bang," he said.
Timothy Yerdon, global director of innovation and design at Visteon, dared to suggest that the entirely self-driving car might never come to pass, because it will never be as good as a human driver at coping with the unexpected on the road. He wondered if the car would realize that it's in trouble. "How do you alert the driver to take control from an autonomous driving mode?"
Kia's Beizh tossed in the almost taboo topic of cost. "How much does it cost to build an automobile that can drive itself?" he asked. "And can it be mass-produced?"
The panelists' misgivings notwithstanding, CES 2014 is clearly applying "technology push" to advanced electronics in what Yerdon called "the cockpit."
Among additions to the features in and around the dashboard-to-be (or already there) are multi-app smartphones with Facebook and Twitter, email, mapping, TV traffic updates, hotel reservations, shopping, and, certainly (though nobody's bringing it up), porn. With the arrival of all this new stuff in the cockpit, the question that kept popping up, and kept slipping through panelists' fingers like an overheated radiator cap, was driver distraction.
"There has to be a better, more relevant way," said Thomas Gebhardt, president and COO of Panasonic automotive systems, "so that you're not in search mode while you're trying to keep your eyes on the road."
Everyone agreed that dials and buttons, to control all the new automotive electronics, lend to greater distraction. No one was sure whether touchpads, or even gesture recognition, would make things much better. And everyone agreed that "eye-tracking" technology is still science fiction.
Voice recognition is a well advanced technology that could reduce driver distraction, noted Panasonic's Gebhardt, except that it doesn't work consistently in cars, because so many drivers don't like it and tend to turn it off, after which they resort to good old buttons and dials.
In the end, generalities seemed to dominate the issue of distracted driving, the key safety issue for the new wave of automotive electronics. Kia's Beizh, for example, said, "We have to find a very flat and very intuitive interface in our vehicles."
Visteon's Yerdon added to this insight by saying, "Today, we need to understand the user experience, and mold precision plastic so that it looks like a phone or a small tablet."
Further concerns about driver distraction came from the audience, including one questioner who wondered whether drivers will be less skilled when the car is doing most of the driving. Although trying not to be flippant about this concern, Beizh ended up sounding that way: "You are going to have degradation. So what?"
Gebhardt sounded one of the session's many cautionary notes by wondering if too much is really never enough. More and more cockpit features can't help but add complications, distractions, and expense to the design of a car, especially with software updates that can either improve a feature or add even more features on the run, he suggested.
Eventually, said Gebhardt, uttering a word rarely heard at CES, automakers and technologists must consider taking something out. He said, "When you talk about an add-on, you have to ask, what is the subtraction... We don't think you can continue to stack features into a vehicle forever."
- David Benjamin
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