Forget what you’ve heard, self-driving cars aren’t coming soon – and here’s why

1w ago


Your thoughts on autonomous or self-driving cars? I’m assuming that since you’re on DriveTribe, your views on cars that drive themselves are broadly in line with mine: NO THANKS.

I’m opposed to the whole idea of self-driving cars not just because I love driving, but because they’re not going to work. I’ve driven loads of prototypes over the years, and production cars that have automated systems, and neither of them are reliable.

A couple of weeks ago I flew to Malaga for the launch of the new BMW 3-Series. We travelled there on a Boeing 737 MAX. That aircraft is still parked at Malaga because literally hours after we landed the whole 737 MAX fleet was grounded. You might well have followed the whole saga, nay scandal, of the two 737 MAX crashes. If you have you will have read that the American Federal Aviation Authority allowed Boeing’s engineers to carry out much of the certification own their own aircraft. Marking your own homework in other words.

Why have I brought up the subject of aviation? Because this is a world that is highly experienced in automated systems. Not, note, autonomous systems because they’re illegal in aviation. Even a drone is controlled by somebody in a bunker in the Arizona desert.

Having meetings while your autonomous car drives you to work is a long way off

Last year I asked an engineer with 40 years of experience in avionics when he thought Level 5 autonomous cars would be on the market (Level 5 is full autonomy, on any road). Decades away, he thought. I also spoke to BMW’s head of autonomy and that was even more revealing. To what international standards, I asked, are you developing your automated systems? ‘There aren’t any standards,’ he replied. BMW, and other car companies, are marking their own homework.

A Boeing 777 has nine independent flight management computers in three separate units. All of them are closed loop and are not linked to GPS or any outside intervention. Not so a self-driving car’s computer system because it needs to use GPS and also information from the cloud.

Neither will any future autonomous cars have the same level of redundancy as an airliner. It’ll be too expensive and too complicated. One of the reasons that aviation experts, and particularly pilots, are horrified by the 737 MAX accidents is that there was a single point of failure. One sensor gave false information and that put the aircraft into steep dives that the pilots couldn’t pull up from.

The tech is very clever, but it's not going to be ready for decades

There is good news about self-driving cars. Several engineers running autonomous driving programmes in car companies have told their friends in marketing and public relations to stop pulling out of thin air dates on which these cars will be on our roads. ‘Stop promising what we won’t be able to deliver,’ they’re saying.

I predict that the hype around self-driving cars will die down over the next couple of years. I’m already seeing it happen.