Google's self driving car concept

Why Robocars are your safest bet

Words: Juergen Furian
Photo: Waymo

Juergen Furian chats with autonomous driving guru Brad Templeton
Juergen Furian
Juergen Furian

Co-Founder of Pioneers.io. Explorer of future tech that pushes the envelope. Monthly columnist for The Red Bulletin. Find him on linkedin, twitter and IG (juergen_furian).

There’s one reason I can’t wait for autonomous driving systems to go mainstream. Of all the things that are exciting in the mobility space, this is the one you should really care about.   
 
Every year almost 1.3 million people die in road accidents. That’s over three thousand fatalities per day. Isn’t it interesting that we fear things like cancer and terrorism far more than getting into a car? I feel like my future kids will shake their heads in wonder that us old folks ever got into these dangerous things called cars. 

The reason we do it is that we need to move from A to B, and we’re willing to accept the price. No matter how many people get killed or injured. No matter how many families get torn apart. Now, to put that into perspective, the number of fatalities in terrorist attacks worldwide was around 28,300 in 2015. I’ll leave that thought with you.    

I hope that new autonomous automotive technologies will eliminate the destructive consequences of humans driving. I reached out to our former Pioneers speaker Brad Templeton for his views on the life-saving potential of these cars, as well as more on current and future developments in the Robocar space. Brad has been involved in that space from the early days, advising Google’s team of engineers as they developed their self-driving car. You can read much more on his blog here.

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JUERGEN FURIAN: Brad, you’ve been an expert on the topic of driverless cars for many years now.  

BRAD TEMPLETON: Oh c’mon, please don’t!

Don’t what?

That term driverless Cars. It’s stupid. It’s like calling a car a horseless carriage.

OK! So what’s the proper term?

There isn’t one at the moment. I prefer to go with Robocars. I like self-driving cars, but that’s too long. 

© Youtube // Pioneers Festival

Robocars it is, then. The safety implications are massive. We could see some mind-blowing statistics in terms of lives saved…

Absolutely. I think Robocars could save 33,000 lives and a million injuries in the USA alone. Mostly young people, for whom car accidents are the leading cause of death among major categories. Worldwide, I think we’re talking about over a million lives saved per year.

The major technology powering autonomous driving is Machine Learning, a form of Artificial Intelligence, is that right?

Yes, and Convolutional Neural Networks, which helps to recognise and classify objects, has proven to be a very effective tool for engineers using machine learning. 

What startups do you have on your radar right now, and what technologies are they working on that will push autonomous driving to the next level?

There are lots of startups working on it. Many, like zoox.co, are doing so in stealth mode. Quanergy.com is one I’m involved in. It is really about classifying objects, or perception systems to understand the world. A few others are trying maps. The question is whether it will it be done just with cameras or a combination of cameras, lasers and radar.

Do you think the end-game will be played between the big car manufacturers and tech giants, or will startups have a role too?

There’s plenty of space and opportunity for startups to innovate and be massively successful. However, there’s no doubt that once their technology works and generates money then Google, Uber, Apple will invest heavily and claim territory.

I notice you’ve not mentioned the big car manufacturers…

Well, you know, the most crucial component of future cars is the computer, not the engine! The computer runs on Moore’s Law. So the changes we’re seeing in transportation are more like the changes we’ve seen in phones than anything else.

And that also means traditional car manufacturers will have to transform themselves into service providers…

That’s going to be very tough for them. Since the day they started, their business model has always been selling cars. It’s not impossible to handle the chance, and probably some will succeed, but it will require a massive shift in their organization and business model. As well as to their thinking.

What about some of the other applications for autonomous systems?

Of course, some companies are working on shuttles, like the successful French startup Navya (Top50 startup Pioneers Festival 2015) or nuTonomy in Singapore. Also don’t forget about delivery robots like starship.

Or Steve Cousins’ hotel delivery robot startup ‘Savioke

Fun fact: I’m told some people do actually tip the robot after delivery.

© Youtube // Adrian Canoso

There’s a lot of buzz around the topic of autonomous driving, and a lot of opinions. Where do your views run contrary to what others believe?

Quite a lot of stuff is stupid. Cars talking to each other is just stupid. That will never happen! It’s just not useful, and it involves massive security risks.

Anything else that’s stupid in your opinion?

Don’t get me started.

Just one more?

The whole thing about changing the infrastructure simply won’t happen. The car has to adapt, not the infrastructure.

Thanks for the chat!

What I love the most about my job is how it brings me in contact with so many innovators and lets me learn about new technologies so early in their life cycles. The imaginative startups at our Mobility.Pioneers event in Munich this year are working on 3D camera systems, sensor technologies, Big data analytics, AI-powered software applications and much more in the space of mobility. They’re all things that will ultimately make getting in a car safer.

In the end, only the things that are safe, efficient, cost-effective and comfortable will survive. It will be mostly up to us as consumers to decide what we want and what we don’t want. We’re living in exciting times – or to use Brad’s words: “Get ready for a wild ride!”

Juergen’s innovator tip

Sure, advanced and complex technologies have to be developed before Robocar systems are able to hit the mainstream. But it’s not just about technologies. Computers will have to make ‘moral’ decisions in certain situations.
 
Try using MIT’s moral machine to teach the robocar which decision it should take!

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