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Who’s driving level 5 autonomous vehicles?

“I’m looking to buy a car that I never have to drive,” said nobody, ever, according to Ford North Harbour Store’s Branch Manager Derrick van den Berg. And that in essence is what this conversation (or lack thereof) is all about. If nobody wants to own a car/SUV that they NEVER have to drive, then who or what is behind the big push?

Okay, so I have a biased viewpoint, as I like to drive. I like to control a vehicle, I like the feedback it gives and the way it responds to the direction, albeit acceleration or steering, that I give it. Sure, I can find a million better uses for my time than being stuck bumper to bumper in a commute and just quietly, I enjoy using adaptive cruise control when on endlessly long drives, but I will stress once again – I like to drive. So, if the choice comes down to driver’s assists or a steering wheel, then my friends, you can be sure I know where my vote will fall.

For those of you unsure of the Automation levels, let me fill in the blanks.

Level 0 – Is just that, no Automation. There may be some alerts but you Kirk, have control of the bridge.

Level 1 – Sharing the load. It’s hands on the wheel but the vehicle assists. As previously noted, Adaptive Cruise Control or Lane Keep Assist. Via Radar and LiDAR, the vehicle helps out.

Level 2 – Let go of the round thing. The system has control of the steering, braking and acceleration BUT you need to take heed of what is going on, being ready to assist the car if required.

Level 3 – Relax and watch a movie, text your friends, enjoy the surroundings. You may still be required to assist the vehicle (but you’ll probably be too late if anything happens)

Level 4 – Good night, sleep tight. Relax your body and mind. Much like level 3 but even more removed.

Level 5 – What’s a steering wheel? You are just along for the ride.

Casual conversations with the chaps at Jaguar and BMW opened up more questions than answers. Again, according to them, no-one has really called and asked for a level 5 car (both marques have vehicles on the road that teeter between 1&2 and I’m sure that work is well underway towards 5) but both personally see it as a blessing for things like motorways but feel it will be hard to achieve as NZ has an average vehicle age of a decade or more. The conversations then moved towards EV’s and Safety, the latter I’ll get to soon.

If we assume that drivers want to drive, then is the need or point for level 5 (from a user’s view) moot? So maybe (just like Smartphones) it’s the car makers ‘building it and they will come?’ But then I’d question their desire for this. Cars that have no ‘human’ input (to me) suggest that all the emphasis (or blame should things go wrong) falls on the manufacturer – That’s a huge risk, there are so many variables and uncertainties on even a ride to the store.

Safety is definately an issue and we all want zero deaths on our roads, that’s a given. Volvo, has moved their top speed from 250km/h to 180km/h, cool but warranted? They, like many other marques, have seriously upped the safety features (AEB and the like) and ‘Taking human interference out of the equation will stop a lot of accidents’ seems an easy statement to agree with. But, the infrastructure required will/would be massive from a local council aspect to really go defcon 5. Vehicles need to talk to other vehicles and the roads and the conditions and animals and, and, and.

Let’s talk utopia and all thing considered, we all have level 5. We’re in a world where the driverless cars are always on hand to take you where you want to go and when you want to get there. They abide by all laws (because they will HAVE to), designs are irrelevant as, hmmm it’s just A2B transport. Is this a vehicle you want to own – I don’t.

So maybe it’s fleets? Taxi companies? Transporters of freight &/or people? There’s some possibility here. Less individual car ownership, means less traffic and possibly less infrastructure required? Bizarre, as car sales numbers are still sitting at record numbers – so the desire to own is strong and I’m sure the desire to sell/produce vehicles is unyielding.

So my conclusion is this my friends – no-one is driving level 5 autonomy (yeah I get the joke). But it seems to be true. IMHO Level 5 will take all the fun out of something I hold quite dear. The day I passed my driving test was one of the happiest of my life and I have lusted (in fact still do) over soo many makes and models – don’t take away my steering wheel.

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