StephenCorby

COMPUTER SAYS YES

Stephen Corby

YOU ASSUME YOU’LL HATE AUTONOMOUS CARS BECAUSE THEY’LL BE DULL AND BORING AND WILL MAKE DRIVING ABOUT AS MUCH FUN AS AIR TRAVEL WITHOUT THE FREE BOOZE. BUT WHAT IF THE REALITY IS EVEN MORE SPIRIT-CRUSHING?

How annoying would it be if a computer hard drive turned out to be a better driver than you?

Though, to be fair, a broken pocket watch would be better behind the wheel than some humans.

I was faced with this alarming alternate reality recently when a Honda Accord drove itself, and me, around the handling loop at the Tochigi proving grounds in a truly enthusiastic manner. The company test driver, who was probably working out what his redundancy package is worth, sat there imitating a crash test dummy.

Then, on the second lap, the car’s Target Line Trace Control really dropped the hammer and attacked the circuit with relish, instantly proving that the autonomous future might not be so bad after all.

Yoichi Sugomoto, the head of the company’s Autonomous Driving team, explained that the car had been basically taught the route by the test driver, but that it was constantly adapting, depending on grip – which it definitely tested to and beyond the limit – and the weight of the people in the car.

The system could, theoretically, drive like that on a public road, or any race track, by using its multiple cameras, radars, yaw sensors and mapping information.

The Honda can place itself in the best possible position in a lane, even around hairpin corners, through its “smooth tracing of the target line”, which it picks up from road markings, GPS info and the movement of cars ahead. Unlike other systems, it even knows how to change lanes.

The Target Line Trace Control – which should be available for use on highways, from on-ramp to off-ramp, by 2020, according to Honda – also offers “smooth steering, acceleration and braking with no strangeness”. Although I can tell you it definitely feels very strange indeed.

One exciting possibility this opens up is that your car could actually teach you to be a better driver, a proposition that had Sugomoto nodding enthusiastically.

“It could teach you, yes, show you where to brake, how to turn the wheel,” he said. “One of the goals is to ease the anxiety of novice drivers and give guidance for good driving skill, in line with driver’s style.”

Engineers working on this tech in America have been analysing the responses of racing drivers to situations like loss of traction on ice, correcting oversteer and so on, while teaching their autonomous cars to react just like them.

A Honda NSX of the future could whip you around Phillip Island at racing pace, while you lightly hold the controls to learn how it’s done, and then let you have a go, coaching and correcting you along the way.

The main use for automated cars, however, will be more mundane, particularly in Japan, where the demand for them is being driven by an ageing population who are living longer than ever and want to stay on the road when they’re clearly too doddery to drive.

A truly safe road network would be one where fully autonomous cars, which Sugomoto estimates will be available by 2030, replace humans altogether.

There will be resistance to this from we fallible flesh blobs, but Sugomoto says it’s something we might see tried on a limited basis in a small community at first. And once that experiment shows a zero-accident rate, look out.

One exciting possibility is that your car could actually teach you to be a better driver

The big issues

Honda’s Yoichi Sugomoto is reluctant to give an exact timeline for his goal of “full automation”, although 2030 is his guess, if his team can overcome a few issues.

Cameras with higher resolution images that can cope with driving at night are on his wish list, but he nominates his biggest hurdles as being able to harmonise autonomous drivers with human ones, and overcoming regulatory issues.

Some more litigious countries may be somewhat late to the self-driving party.