There’ll be nine billion of us soon. By 2050 populations in cities will double. Six billion urbanites. Traffic will triple.
Already 1.2 million people die every year in car accidents, 90% of them due to human error. That’s 3,500 people a day, 25 by the time you finish reading this story. We need someone to save us from us. Or something… enter the robots.
“We expect robo-cars to drive better than human beings in the next decade,” says the head of automated technologies at German giant Bosch, Stephan Stass. “This will happen.”
The companies at the forefront of this drive to self-driving, aren’t actually the car makers. They are merely facilitators, retailers if you want, of tech being developed by the auto industry’s supplier base, giants like Google, Intel, Nvidia, Qualcomm, Continental, Delphi, and the biggest supplier of all, Bosch.
Car companies are steeped in a century-old way of making cars that hasn’t changed much fundamentally ever since Henry Ford had the idea of an assembly line.
Cars haven’t changed much either—the suck-squeeze-bang-blow concept of an engine burning fossil fuels is the same now as it was in the late 19th century. But this is the tech world and the guy with oil-stained fingers is the odd one out.
German luxury brand Audi recently launched the new Audi A8 in Barcelona, where Forbes Middle East had a look at the first Level 3 autonomy-capable production car in the world.
Thanks to Bosch computers, an Nvidia processor and Mobileye cameras, the big A8, coddling you in leather, wood and touchscreens, can drive itself on a busy highway at speeds of up to 60km/h in traffic.
Just not yet. Audi has the tech, and a car that can park in a mall or reverse into your garage while you stand watching, but the company has to wait for governments around the world to allow hands-off driving before it can sell it to you.
Because of the approval procedures Audi will roll out its automated driving tech with a step-by-step approach. “It’s all about us getting used to this autonomous driving stuff,” says Stass. We’re talking under a sunshade on the scorched tarmac of Bosch’s proving ground test track between Stuttgart and Frankfurt, while a Tesla prototype dodges pedestrian dummies and parks itself.
What these guys are seeing is a clear demand for driverless technologies around the world, with none of the trust. Generations of drivers used to a steering wheel in their hands and reluctant to let computers run their lives when they can’t trust their laptop from freezing, might be slow to catch up.
“Obviously we have to start at lower speeds,” Stass says. “First of all, in these kinds of traffic jam situations. Everybody says, ‘I want that, I want this function, this is really great.’
Nobody wants to drive in a traffic jam, nobody.
“If lots of people have this function available, and can experience this function, this will increase the perception of reliability of this system. Look, in the beginning, even if you remember back when this ESP thing came [Electronic Stability Program—ubiquitous in all cars today].
Everybody thought, ‘Pah, I don’t need ESP. I can drive!’ You know?” And we could, just not as well. Since it was launched in the mid-1990s ESP has saved thousands of lives and along with ABS, the airbag and seatbelts, it is one of the biggest safety advancements made in the history of the automobile.
Artificial Intelligence (AI) is the big one though. The objective: zero accidents. “If we look back at this ESP thing,” Stays says. “There was a lot of discussion in the beginning… At that time, we thought, maybe this is even more dangerous? To have something like ESP, because some drivers will now drive even more risky, because they think they have a guardian angel with them in the car at all times.
“But actually, this didn’t happen. This didn’t happen at all. Now every car has ESP and most people don’t even know they have it. But what has happened since ESP was introduced? In Germany alone, one third of all fatal accidents have been eliminated. One third…
“No government, and no society can simply ignore this kind of potential.”
Even if the regulatory aspects of AI driving haven’t been ironed out, the industry is moving ahead—by the start of the next decade carmakers want to make Level 4 and Level 5 (that’s the one without a steering wheel inside the vehicle, at all) automated driving possible.
Audi’s compatriots are hard at it too. Earlier this year Germany became one of the first countries in the world to draft a law on automated driving.
At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Mercedes-Benz displayed a line of cars from its new sub-brand EQ, all featuring zero-emissions powertrains and self-driving capabilities. BMW will have Level 4 autonomy in its iNext crossover scheduled for 2021.
Swedish brand Volvo, the folks that invented seatbelts, has pledged its entire line-up to electrified drive before gradually phasing in AI. Everyone’s at it but there’s still a way to go. Stass says: “The latest AI technology, from a performance point of view the GPUs are in the range of 30 trillion operations per second.
This is much more than a human brain can handle. But this is not a fair comparison. Because, you know, the question is how to train AI, and what is its learning capability? And there I would say we are making fantastic progress, but we are still at the beginning.
“We can already train AI behavior and interaction between drivers quite well, but the capability of just a small child is really bigger. A child, with you walking and holding on behind, after two minutes can learn to ride a bicycle… I would say that this is still a real challenge.
This kind of human learning is still excellent, but on the other hand human beings still have these kinds of deficiencies I would say, where for example in an emergency situation you only start to react after one second.
Our computers don’t need a second, they need a microsecond, they can react immediately.
“And you know exactly just how far a car can go in one second.”
The robots are coming and whether you love driving or not the megacities of the future will be all the better for it.
Traffic jams cost the world half a trillion dollars a year, and it’s going to get worse. In the U.S., drivers spend on average over 40 hours a year in traffic. In Tokyo, the average speed is 15km/h. In Shanghai, you have to pay $10,000 just to register a car.
The big question that remains is how humans and AI will coexist on our roads, and the answer in the long run is, they won’t. If we try to look as far as 2050 chances are human-controlled cars will be shunned.
“I can imagine that something like this could happen,” Stass says. “I am convinced of that because there is one fundamental thing, and this is avoiding accidents. Currently over one million people die in road accidents every year.
This is an unbelievable number of people dying. I think if we can eliminate this by automatic driving, then…”