Progress for autonomous cars is entering the ‘go slow’ zone

autonomous cars
Image credit: ddisq / Shutterstock.com

CES 2018 has now been and gone. The show organizers said that there were around 20,000 new products launched, but our sweep of news feeds and sources failed to ignite any real feeling that breakthroughs were being announced.

In fact, the media seemed more interested in the robot that did not respond to three clear commands, the blackout in the main hall and the heavy rain storm.

It may be, then, that we are now in an era where it becomes hard to increase the hype around any of the new technologies. What we need is fact not fiction, evolution not revolution.

This certainly seems to be happening in the transport arena.

Autonomous cars continue to attract attention and they are clearly already better drivers than humans. We have been seeing examples of this for some time, with autonomous cars not moving at traffic lights because they have ‘seen’ the guy on the bike chance his arm and cross on green. The human drivers all moved then stopped.

There is a recent example of an autonomous car taking evasive action fully two seconds before two vehicles collided. The car had figured out that the collision was going to take place – the humans had not.

Some insurance companies are offering discounts to Tesla drivers, but only if they keep their hands away from the wheel. And one new car will actually prevent the human from taking over.

This alters the very concept of driving. If humans do not have to be in charge, then the ‘car’ becomes a very different thing. A place to hold meetings, sleep, eat and inevitably spend money with Amazon, Google, Apple or Facebook (other web-scale giants are available).

Or there is the progress with Hyperloop One, where humans are put in pods and flung down vacuum tubes at enormous speeds, thus solving the one huge gap in the US travel solution: the lack of trains.

All of this seems good. All of this reminds us of the Jetsons cartoons from a thousand years ago. [He means the 1960s. – Ed.] And all seems good.

Yet you have to wonder about the other element of this game-changing progress: humans.

Humans are set in their ways (OK, older ones anyway). We do not really trust change. Change always takes longer than the architects of that change predict or want.

A question to ask is whether we want to be driven in cars that do not look like cars any more. Another is how many humans will take up autonomous travel.

The answer will be ‘not all’. Nowhere near, in fact.

So, as usual, we will end up with a mishmash of autonomous cars, normal cars and retro cars (for those who want to drive) and this will mean that the dream of a symphony of cars driving at high speed, without any accidents, traffic jams or stress is a lot further off than we might want.

No wonder a blackout at CES got such attention – we are going to have to get used to a very slow evolution towards the autonomous dream.

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