Robot cars – a future mode of transport

When your car moves without a driver, it suddenly begins to feel like a human and you even start talking to it. Will self-driving vehicles soon become part of everyday life? Will we be hopping into robot cars in the near future?

In May, VTT organised a customer event, where people had a genuine opportunity to find out how it feels to travel in a driverless car. A ‘safety person’ was present during the demo situation, but his only task was to monitor how the robot car behaves and enjoy amazing engineering work. However, humans are still needed to decide on the functionality of the vehicle but it has been pre-programmed as kind of a law book telling the car how to act in each situation. Time has passed since the spring day event; in the intervening period more laws have been inscribed in the book programmed into the cars, Marilyn & Martti. The next milestone was reached on 27th of June, when the silence between the engaged couple ended and the cars began exchanging data on their relative positions and avoiding each other with using the ITS G5 communication channel. Kisses are strictly forbidden, since each one would cost more than EUR 15,000.

Matti Kutila VTT

The robot cars Marilyn & Martti have provided tangible proof that motoring for future generations could and will be totally different to what we are used to. Young people use information technology, tablets, mobile phones and social media differently to those of us whose first computer was the legendary Commodore 64, acquired mainly for playing games. Cars may be here to stay, but they will be used differently – they are an efficient mode of transport that will be integrated into the transport system by the IT skills of young people, their adventurous spirit, and the availability of the ICT ecosystems. Automation will also allow drivers to become passengers which people are ordering using their mobile apps and IT clouds.

Matti Kutila VTT

Full automation is still some way off

When driving my first car (a Skoda 120 LS) in 1992, I could not imagine that, just 20 years later, my car might automatically park itself as my current car (a Volkswagen Touran) does. Similarly, in 20–30 years’ time my sons will reminisce about how their dad even drove his car in a city bustling with pedestrians, and had to do his own braking at red lights – making them to wonder how inefficient and unsafe was that era!

When I turned 18, it was obvious that I needed a driver’s licence and a car of my own. My sons may not think in the same way, since for them renting or sharing a car will also be an option, as long as they can get around – mobility will trump ownership. They are likely to obtain a driving licence of some kind, but their driving school will probably be different from mine, where the biggest challenges were memorising road signs and remembering to give way at hospital intersection in small city called Forssa. When switching on their car’s automated mode, my sons will probably need to learn how to supervise safety of the automation system and handle status messages of the in-vehicle computer units.

Matti Kutila VTT

Although I strongly believe that the future of road transport lies in automation, the transport system is unlikely to change overnight. This will occur through normal technical evolution, in which automation is introduced step-by-step one aspect, function and area at a time. Full, 24/7 automation everywhere, in any weather conditions and available for all is still 20–30 years ahead, but that is where development is taking us – I have no doubt about that. It is great to be part of the group that is moving this revolution forward and especially, be in the driver’s seat with my world-class colleagues, the VTT RobotCar Crew.

Matti Kutila_Citroen_01072016

Matti Kutila
Automated Vehicles, Research Team Leader
Twitter: @matti_kutila

New developments involve both threats and opportunities – Why is more demanded of robot cars than people?

New technology and business models bring new opportunities and risks. New risks should be examined in a different way to older, familiar ones. Take robot cars, for example.

new and emerging risks, risk management

“Google’s self-driving car caused its first crash”, “Fatal Tesla Self-Driving Car Crash Reminds Us That Robots Aren’t Perfect” , “Google’s self-driving car was just involved in ANOTHER crash“. Accidents involving robot cars are big news. Is this because robot cars are a major threat to road safety? It’s more probably because such accidents are so rare. And, above all, because all new things beyond our individual control are viewed as particular threats. Cars are also something that arouse strong passions and opinions, particularly among men, in this ‘world’s fastest nation’. To many people, a private car is much more than a way of getting from point A to B.

Of course, only few robot cars are on the roads, but Tesla’s own statements reveal that, prior to the above-mentioned accident, their cars had driven 210 million kilometres in traffic, while on ‘autopilot’, without causing any damage. How many of we drivers could make the same boast? Robot cars are often justified on the basis of safety. For example, it has been claimed that ”94 percent of road accidents are caused by human error, and it is said that driverless technology will drastically lower, if not eliminate this factor.” Robot car developer Matti Kutila from VTT confirms that robot cars are mainly about avoiding collisions. On the other hand, statistics show that robot cars are involved in collisions more often than human drivers (USA 2015). Which of these is the ‘alternative truth’?

The truth is that events are not easily and clearly foreseeable in complex adaptive systems such as traffic. If one type of accident is avoided, others can occur. What is more, the current robot car models are not intended for full use in traffic. Even Tesla’s robot cars are intended for routine sections of motorway. The speed of Google cars, on the other hand, is limited to 55 km/h. Decades lie ahead, before the journey to full automation that works in all weather conditions and traffic cultures is completed. Many developers of robot cars around the world (including VTT) have run into the problem that, while 85% of traffic situations can be handled by computers, 15% remain unaccounted for. There are situations, such as certain weather conditions, which occur just once a month. Every improvement by a tenth-of-a-percent is a hard-won battle. For example, the fact that a robot car effectively avoids collisions by braking or swerving could lead to collisions with other road users. Since people will always be present in traffic, robot cars need to take account of the human factor in order to reduce the number of accidents. Even in normal situations, people’s abilities and behaviour differ widely and are, to some extent, difficult to anticipate. On the other hand, we should not forget that people are also needed when robotic cars hit trouble: What would happen, for example, if people tried to push a robot car out of a snowbank?

It also has to be expected that deliberate and even suicidal attempts will be made to obstruct robot cars, as occurs even currently in traffic. Even the hacking of robot cars has to be accounted for, given the number of cyber attacks made on various information systems. This is particularly noteworthy considering that a malfunctioning car would pose a direct threat to many people and a large number of cars using the same software could be made to malfunction simultaneously, and without warning. Luckily, car developers and the authorities are aware of the risks and are also developing robot car safety.

When viewed as problems, new technology and business models also raise time-worn questions. A robot car too must make difficult choices, which has led to sensational headlines: ”Why Self-Driving Cars Must Be Programmed to Kill. Such a situation might be as follows: Which will I hit: an oncoming lorry or a child running onto the road, if I cannot avoid a collision? This question is basically as old as humanity (if we substitute, say, mammoths for trucks). However, a general public discussion of these ethical issues has begun, alongside the emergence of robot cars and artificial intelligence. There have been demands for public supervision of artificial intelligence, even as technology developers have made their own initiative to improve their practices. Mercedes-Benz has solved the problem associated with ethical choices in such a manner that the car always primarily chooses to protect the passenger. However, many people believe that pedestrians should be primarily protected, even if they would hardly buy a car that failed to prioritise passenger safety.

Risks and opportunities go hand in hand

New risks can always emerge when developing something new. On the other hand, many positive outlooks and expectations are linked to new developments. In addition to new kinds of road safety challenges, there is the risk that robot cars will not fulfil expectations. Various pressures can easily arise in the gap between different expectations and managed development. However, in managing new risks we should advance one step at a time, while gathering information. The development of robot cars seems to be progressing in accordance with this principle. Development work is taken to an advanced stage in laboratories and controlled test environments before robot cars are introduced into traffic. They are currently being tested in traffic, for example, within limited areas in Finland, Sweden and in this year also in London.

Traffic has a major impact on society, from both the positive and negative perspective. That is why it is strongly controlled by legislation, particularly with regard to safety. For example, according to the Vienna Convention on Road Traffic a vehicle must have a driver. Developers of robot cars respond to this by pointing out that the convention does not say that the driver has to be in the vehicle. This idea can be stretched further, by stating that the convention does not, perhaps, forbid the same driver from controlling several vehicles. Legislators may view this as a loophole which needs to be filled. On the other hand, it would make more sense for all concerned if car developers, the authorities, other experts and the ‘general public’ developed regulations and controls that take the best possible account of the risks.

So why is more expected of a robot car than from a person, or is it? If a robot driver were treated like a human driver, it would have to pass a theoretical and practical driving test. With a little luck, even a lower-end robot driver could pass such a test and obtain a driving licence. However, as I mentioned above, a robot driver faces quite different challenges to a human driver. This means that we should assess robot drivers differently.

We have already considered the risks associated with the new technology, and their control, by referring to examples and the development of robot cars. We must begin by clarifying how much we know about the risks and then feeling our way towards learning more further development. We should neither allow the fear of risk to impede development, or become so carried away with development that we make disastrous decisions. Risk management is an activity that ensures success.

VTT has studied the assessment of new and emerging risks. The findings have been summarised in a publication that is available, in Finnish, online: Uutta riskien arviointiin – Tietopohjan merkitys ja uudistamisen keinot. Getting and evaluating information and knowledge is essential in modern risk assessment – as presented in the following illustration of a modern risk assessment process.

risk assessment process

Jouko Heikkilä VTT

Jouko Heikkilä, Research Scientist
Twitter: @JoukoHeikkilae

Senior Scientist Marinka Lanne also participated in the study of new risks.

Robotic cars are coming – are we ready?

Matti Kutila_Citroen_01072016

Robotic cars and automation in traffic were the great innovation of 2016 – or were they really? Could they perhaps just represent a long-term revolutionary path that has merely attracted special attention in recent media headlines? In any case, automotive engineering is undergoing transition from metal bending towards software development which is extremely fascinating.

Cars travelling 24/7 in a snowfall on icy roads are a future dream and more reliable technology is needed to equal surpass human driving skills. For example, a self-driving car representing the current state of the art cannot enter a multi-lane roundabout in congested Paris traffic – or at least leaving roundabout would be enormous challenge.

Automation in traffic is now top of the famous Gartner hype curve which is a measure of technology interests in industry. Unfortunately, the next few years a steady downward slope is expected before a slow rise again. Meanwhile, the automated functions will take over control of the vehicle step by step and becomes a master of driving instead of being assistants.

Development of robotic cars began more than 35 years ago

Although the media was awakened to the significant investments made in robotic cars by Google five years ago, the seeds of automation had been sown considerably earlier. Mercedes Benz introduced the first self-driving car in 1980, using the technology of the time. However, the loudest starting shot was fired at the DARPA Grand Challenge competitions, arranged by Pentagon in the U.S. between 2004 and 2007. The core of Google’s development teams was also made up of the university teams which had successfully participated in these completions.

Starting from the early 1990s, the European car industry has brought to the market a series of active, electronics-based safety systems. Through EU projects, we have had ringside seats to follow the development. Automated safety features now being released onto the market can be considered as the next generation of active safety features. Thus, the development of automation did not begin five years ago – it was initiated already 35 years ago.

Difficult road weather conditions pose a problem

Despite the product development efforts worth several billions undertaken by the automotive industry, traffic authorities and public funders, the world is not yet ready. As a matter of fact, at the current stage, fully automated vehicles are fairly primitive. Such vehicles are capable of travelling on roads at up to 50 kilometres per hour in areas covered by an accurate mapping data and during sunny weather. Cars travelling 24/7 in a snowfall on icy Finnish roads are still a distant dream, perhaps ten years away.

The current sources of sensory data are not sufficiently reliable in harsh weather conditions, and the processing capacity of vehicles to understand varying traffic incidences is far from the human brain. Not until now has the technology reached a point where sensors for talking and hearing can be installed, thanks to the capability of vehicles systems which enables them to exchange data. An obvious demand for automation in traffic exists, but the technology still needs further development. Anyway, having an opportunity to develop cars of which the public only has a faint conception is a researcher’s dream job.

Mixed traffic poses problems

The widespread adoption of automated cars is often said to improve traffic safety – after all, automation removes one of the factors underlying accidents, the human error. Traffic is also expected to run more smoothly as automated vehicles can travel closer to each other than cars with human drivers. Automated cars also facilitate the travel of such people who cannot or do not want to drive a car for some reason.

As we have had the opportunity to read during the past few weeks, gains in safety can be made, but not even automation is able to deal with every possible situation. One unfortunate collision involving a fatality has already occurred, as the sensory system of a car controlled by an autopilot failed to recognise an obstacle ahead of it. One additional challenge to safety is the fact that robotic vehicles do not travel in traffic composed of their likes, but in mixed traffic involving ordinary cars, pedestrians and cyclists.

Making traffic run smoothly requires not only automated systems but also a capability of vehicles to ‘talk to’ each other. An automated vehicle just following the car in front of it and reacting on its movements is not enough. After all, a good and experienced driver follows the traffic farther ahead, and in this way is capable of anticipating new situations. At present, human drivers are more flexible than automated cars.

What next?

The technical development of automated cars will continue and the price of its components will come down. More and varied experiments will be conducted, providing excellent data for impact assessment. At the present stage, impacts can only be assumed, with scenarios representing the opposite ends of the spectrum being equally likely. Therefore, it is important to be involved in development and research.

Components for smart cars have been developed for 30 years, and will be developed for the next 30 years. The decades to come will present challenges. The price of the components representing the previous generation will decrease, with new features being introduced in the high-end cars. Alternatively, we might be mistaken, and the traditional car industry loses the game and the new car brands will bear names such as Baidu, Google, Apple, and Tesla. The future manufacturers might even deliver a set of components to the customer who could then assemble a car by following instructions, in the same way as the furniture industry delivers its products today. Of course the automotive software is being sold separately for a monthly fee. Let’s wait and see.

The only certain thing is that traffic philosophy will change. We already have mixed traffic involving traditional cars, automated vehicles, more or less automated lightweight vehicles (such as Segway PT electric vehicles), and public transport. This will make the traffic environment highly complex. In order to help researchers to understand the changes in guiding product development in the right direction, various field tests involving motorways, urban environment, networked environment, closed areas, crossroads, winter conditions, articulated platoon of lorries and passenger cars need to be conducted.

Building and maintaining traffic infrastructure and the R&D of vehicles is expensive and requires a great deal of work. Field tests will substantially reduce the risk of wrong or unnecessary investments. Tests not only offer an opportunity to assess impacts and to provide support to companies conducting R&D, they also provide an excellent channel to communicate to the public the true meaning of automated traffic and to prevent people from getting the wrong ideas and attitudes. Automated vehicles are not developed for engineers or authorities, but for ordinary people in order to enable them to travel in a more convenient way in future.

Merja Penttinen

Matti Kutila, Senior Scientist 

Merja Penttinen, Research Team Leader; Twitter: @MerjaPenttinen