LAS VEGAS -The presence of auto manufacturers at CES 2017 was on full display this year. As the gap between the automotive and electronics industries becomes harder to define, the race is on for car manufacturers to emerge as an industry leader in autonomous vehicles.
Cars have been integrating computer systems in automobiles since 1969 when Kelsey Hays of Ford devolved the Sure-Track anti-skid system. Since then, rapid advancements in technology have transformed automobiles in ways that make us wonder, “How much longer before I can buy a vehicle comparable to Optimus Prime, minus the guided missile system, transforming, and hand to hand combat skills of course?” According to Ford CEO, Mark Fields, you won’t have to wait much longer. Ford is sticking to its plan to have autonomous vehicles in full production by 2021. Ford’s over the top presence at CES this year definitely showed their commitment to the date, even though some industry experts are skeptical. Steven Shladover, a research engineer at the University of California Berkeley, has been researching and working on automated driving for over 20 years. Shladover says, “The hype has gotten totally out of sync with reality.” Shladover and many others are brought to this belief because the software is not yet able to handle real world situations such as weather, police directing traffic, and other non-ideal conditions that drivers face everyday.
Now, I am going to change the direction of this a little bit. I am going to give you my perspective on autonomous vehicles at CES and the questions that I have. Disclaimer: I do not claim to be an expert in the development of automobiles or electronics and simply want to provide my personal thoughts. We decided to go to CES this year because we were looking for ideas and information on the future of technology and consumer electronics.
I did some research on what to expect and was not surprised by the presence of the auto manufacturers. I was, however, surprised to see that even some well-known and unknown electronics companies had autonomous vehicle prototypes, and almost everyone is on the same page on how these things look. They have to look space age with a Jetson-esk feel. The majority of the prototypes was not practical and seemed far-fetched for practical use in the near future. I understand that CES is about forward thinking and creativity to drive innovation, but it seemed like some companies knew they had to present for the automotive sector and threw together some crazy prototype in fear of being left behind. Do not get me wrong, some of the prototypes were works of art, but that is all they were. I was hoping to see something more realistic of what we can expect in the near future.
I mean let’s be real for a second. We are expecting full-service driverless vehicles by 2021? We have still not “solved” the alternate energy aspect of automobiles. Yes, we have made significant progress, but electric cars have been around since the 1800s and we still haven’t completely converted. Can we blame the oil industry for getting in the way of the production of electric cars? Sure, but arguments can also be made that consumers, government, and even car manufacturers had a part in the slowed innovation, acceptance and production. If there has been that much resistance to a battery, imagine the list of things that could potentially hinder the fully autonomous vehicle. Here are just a few examples:
Consumers – We have become more involved with technology, but convincing everyone to give up control of their car will be easier said than done. Not all consumers are going to want the option. Maybe they enjoy driving or maybe they will not feel safe trusting their life to a computer, but whatever the reason there will be many consumers who will resist the idea.
Media – According to research, 94% of all crashes on U.S. roads are the result of human error. While people are expected to make mistakes, any errors by a computer-controlled autonomous vehicle will immediately be put under a magnifying glass and severely scrutinized by the media and consumers. There will be advocates for both sides of course, but it will be divided for a long time.
Human Error – Every consumer that decides an automated vehicle will not drive them becomes a liability to others on the road. Simply put, robots will be better drivers than people in ideal conditions, but not everyone is going to let a robot drive.
Data – One of the most important things not being discussed thoroughly about car automation is data. The amount of data that is collected, processed, and stored for an autonomous vehicle to operate flawlessly is going to be exponential to the amount we produce today. How long do we need to store the data? What data is relevant to store? What data is considered private? Will the user be able to optionally share data with the manufacturer for future development of AI or will it be required? Those are just a few things that come to mind when thinking about incoming and outgoing data.
I am confident that companies will be able to store the amount of data that is produced, but how will it be transmitted? Storage will have to be local as well as saved on a server in real time. Local storage will not be a problem, but what happens in the event the local storage is damaged? Wouldn’t the car manufacturer and/or “car pilot” need to provide proof that the automated vehicle was not at fault? There are still places you cannot get dial-up internet or cell phone service! How do we plan to build out a wireless infrastructure that can transmit vast amounts of data at high speed anywhere you are?
Or, maybe they just make the local storage indestructible like a black box on an airplane. Black boxes are almost indestructible…keyword – almost.
Security – As we grow with technology, so do our security needs. For years this has been a game of cat and mouse between developers and hackers. It will be very important for autonomous vehicle software developers to concurrently develop security for a product that will be cruising down the road at high speeds, all being controlled by a computer.
Government – Aside from the miles of red tape that is normally present from the government in the form of regulations, the manufacturers will need additional help to implement this product on a mass scale. Infrastructure and technology will need to be updated on our roads to provide the safest most consistent conditions for autonomous vehicles. It will be a large task considering the American Society of Civil Engineers graded our overall infrastructure a D+ and estimated a needed investment of 3.6 trillion by 2020.
Workforce – Automation always creates fear among the workforce and that will not change with autonomous vehicles. Taxi drivers, ride-sharing owners, public transit employees, and goods transportation are the first to come to mind. The fear of these workers will feed the reluctance to adopt the technology. There is no doubt that some industries will see a loss of jobs, but there is the potential for this technology to create a net gain in jobs.
Insurance – It will be interesting to see if insurance companies respond to automation in a positive or negative manner. Insurance companies make money from monthly premiums paid by drivers, which can vary based on risk. If auto accidents are greatly reduced by autonomous vehicles, premiums would drop thereby reducing the insurance companies’ revenue. They could play a large role in the adoption or delay of autonomous vehicles depending on their reaction.
With all that being said, I have no doubt that Ford will have a driverless car deployed in some sense by 2021, although it will most likely be in a limited capacity. The autonomous vehicle hype at CES 2017 was just that in my opinion. They are getting us ready for what is to come. It may not be as fast as some think or want, but it is coming and we should be excited!