In May, I had the opportunity to attend an autonomous car (ie. self-driving) car demonstration, in Tampa, Florida. As you’ll recall, a Level 4 vehicle is capable of fully driving itself, under a specific set of conditions- accelerating, steering and braking all on its own. Since I had never been in a Level 4 car, I thought it would be great to take part in the demonstration.
Getting in and Letting Go
The local tollway authority closed down a section of its tollway, starting in late morning so as not to impact morning traffic. When my turn came, I got in the front passenger seat and hoped for the best. Fortunately, I’d already watched other attendees ride in the self-driving vehicle, and their ride seemed to go OK, so I hopped in.
Inside an Autonomous MKZ
Inside, the car, a Lincoln MKZ sedan, appeared remarkable normal; the only visible change was the addition of a tablet mounted just above the radio. Of course, there was a human behind the wheel, just in case, called a “Safety Operator”; this is quite common at this point in the testing of autonomous vehicles. After explaining about the ride we were about to go on, the Safety Operator touched the tablet once, and off we went.
We accelerated up to about 25 mph, and cruised for a minute along a wide, empty toll road, bordered with concrete barriers. Then, with plenty of warning, the car aggressively accelerated up to 45 mph, at a much faster rate than a “normal” driver would generally accelerate from 25 to 45.
We continued to cruise for about two minutes, then the car slowed to a stop, then edged ahead while moving to the rightmost part of the road, quite close to the concrete barrier. It then executed a tight U-turn, all on its own, the steering wheel spinning mightily. After accelerating hard back up to 45 mph, we headed back to the starting point, slowing down to 25 along the way.
As we approached the stopping point, several engineers intentionally stood in the way of the car’s path, and the car did as it should: it slowed, then stopped, before coming into contact with the pedestrians. Obviously, these engineers were confident in their vehicle’s ability to auto-brake for obstacles. Then, we were done.
The whole experience was somewhat…underwhelming, meaning the car did exactly what it was intended to do. Nothing went wrong, nobody got sick, and the car did indeed drive itself, along its prescribed path.
Of course, the short route we took was very accurately mapped beforehand, and the whole system tested repeatedly before non-engineers were allowed to ride along. Plus, the Safety Operator was monitoring the car at all times, ready to step in if needed. This would have involved him merely touching the brake pedal or putting only slight pressure on the steering wheel. Also, there were no other cars on the road during this test, so the test vehicle did not have to cope with any traffic at all, and we all know how wild the mix of cars can be in morning traffic, even on a nice, wide tollway.
While the interior of the car appeared almost completely stock, the same was not true of the exterior, which was festooned with sensors– on the roof, front, rear, and all four corners. But other than that it looked like a regular Lincoln MKZ.
The Future of Self-Driving Cars
Before self-driving cars are widely accepted and adopted, the technology has a long way to go, as do people’s perception of these vehicles, in terms of safety and reliability. If people are afraid of such vehicles, they probably won’t use them. That’s why manufacturers of self-driving cars will probably hold more and more demonstrations like this one, to allow people to experience firsthand how these vehicles operate, under controlled conditions. Based on this demo, I personally hope to participate in more. My recommendation: keep an eye out for this type of demonstration in your area!