Mon, Nov 16, 2015 - Page 15 News List

Japanese autonomous cars face human roadblock

GAINING TRUST:Automakers are developing self-driving cars that can imitate drivers’ style in an attempt to make them feel safe when they let go of the wheel


Japanese automakers would have to convince the public that letting go of the wheel in a self-driving car is safe, while also dealing with the biggest threat to the cars’ security — the humans using them.

Toyota Motor Corp, Nissan Motor Co and Honda Motor Co are intent on putting autonomous cars on highways — and also city roads for Nissan — by 2020, and the trio were keen to stress the advances made so far at the Tokyo Motor Show.

Their stated goal — preventing deaths on the road — is laudable, but the technological arms race is also highly lucrative: Consultancy firm AT Kearney estimated the market for self-driving cars could be worth more than US$566 billion by 2035.

Nissan chief executive officer Carlos Ghosn told reporters at the show that the company has high hopes the technology would save lives while altering car journeys forever.

“It compensates for human error, which causes more than 90 percent of all car accidents. As a result, time spent behind the wheel is safer, more efficient and more fun,” he said.

However, Ghosn’s comments belie the work that still needs to be done, as its engineers edge forward in steps rather than leaps.

Google offers promises of a fully autonomous car, but these automakers are taking a more gradual approach, focusing on aspects such as self-parking and crash avoidance technology.

Functions such as emergency braking and speed-limiting devices that track the distance between vehicles already exist, but getting drivers to abandon the steering wheel completely is a harder sell.

“We must make sure our clients understand how the machine works,” Nissan chief planning officer Philippe Klein said.

To instill confidence, the artificial intelligence that is set to power Nissan’s autonomous cars is to mirror the driver’s driving style as closely as possible, while “ironing out any bad habits,” the automaker said.

Obtaining the trust of drivers is crucial, as without it “we cannot move forward,” Toyota chief safety technology officer Moritaka Yoshida said.

Also, even if the user of a self-driving car is convinced of its superior safety, other road users need to feel secure sharing roads with it.

Manufacturers are experimenting with icons or written messages appearing on windshields, warning sounds, and in one case a light-strip along the length of the car the color and intensity of which would alter in different situations.

Intersections present a particular challenge, Nissan Research Center analyst Melissa Cefkin said.

“Drivers communicate between themselves and with pedestrians or cyclists directly, by swapping looks, with a hand gesture, or even verbally,” she said. “Sometimes it’s interpretative. We look for signals while judging the vehicle’s speed and movements.”

The tiny pointers that motorists pick up from one another are not yet within the reach of the technology.

“Currently, the machine isn’t capable of grasping all the subtlety of these clues,” Cefkin said.

Nissan is undertaking the immense task of studying thousands of intersection scenarios in an attempt to identify cultural patterns by country or context.

In addition, once everyone on the road feels comfortable with autonomous cars in their midst, automakers must still convince regulators of their safety before they can hit the streets.

“Today, you have to drive with your eyes on the road and your hands on the wheel. If the regulation doesn’t change, having a self-driving car would be totally useless... Everything depends on public-private cooperation,” he said.

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