The concept of driverless cars tends to conjure up two images – one of a futuristic utopia of high-tech hover cars and majestic glass fronted skyscrapers, and another quite different one of motorway pile ups and weeping, chest-beating mothers. This is the classic conundrum of advanced technology – if done correctly, it has the potential to transform our lives, but if it’s released too early, it has the potential for devastation. BMW, Intel and Mobileye have formed a partnership which intends to bring driverless cars into mass production by 2021 – but could the rush to beat imposing competitors such as Google, Tesla and Apple result in the technology being released before it is ready? What stage is the race to release the first driverless car currently at, and why do we want driverless cars to begin with?
At Tej Kohli Ventures, we’ve been observing the unfolding narrative of the driverless car debate with great interest – while adaptive cruise control which allows cars to slow down, accelerate and maintain distances based on pre-programming from the driver already exists, and is a common automobile feature, some advanced cruise control systems are also on the market, allowing for a certain amount of hands-free driving as well. The most advanced of these is Tesla’s Autopilot feature – which is being investigated by the US federal government after it was involved in a fatal accident in May.
Tesla was quick to point out that Autopilot is disabled by default on its vehicles, and “requires explicit acknowledgment that the system is a new technology and still in a public beta phase before it can be enabled”. Is this the perfect example of a technology being released before it is sufficiently well developed? Why would Tesla release such a complex product while tacitly admitting it isn’t ready by requiring what is essentially a disclaimer to be signed before its use? And is the tragic death of Joshua Brown the predictable consequence of the driverless technology arms race?
What we can learn from Tesla’s example is the importance that customers have the right expectation of what their car’s technology is capable of, before enabling it. Tesla’s Autopilot is now being advertised as more of a ‘line of defense’ safety feature than something that allows you to take your hand off the wheel – and it’s easy to see it working well as a second pair of eyes, rather than a second pair of hands. But for people to feel comfortable activating truly driverless technology within the next five years, the technology will need to be flawless.
BMW’s decision to partner up with sophisticated tech companies indicates an understanding of the challenges of this industry which bodes well – they aim to create their driverless cars using not just sensors and cameras, but advanced machine learning. Their CEO, Harald Krueger has already stated that “[BMW] believe today the technologies are not ready for series production”, going on to affirm that “For the BMW group, safety comes first”. But whether these assurances will be enough to convince drivers to take their hands off the wheel and their eyes off the road in 2021 remains to be seen.