You come to a four-way stop at the same time as a car to your left. You have the right of way, of course, but being the conscientious driver that you are, you look to the driver of the other car to make sure they’re paying attention—you’re looking for eye contact, or another visual cue that you’re safe to proceed. But instead, you see the person behind the wheel reading the newspaper. You drive on, and in your rearview, you see the car continuing on too, all while the person in the driver’s seat continues to peruse the sports section. No, this isn’t a scene from that futuristic cartoon from the 60’s—it’s a portrait of a self-driving car, going about its day.
It’ll be years before the driver can check out enough to read a paper, but autonomous cars are a reality now. Automotive supplier Delphi has been in the autonomous car game since 1999 and today a team of engineers will set out for a 3,500 mile road trip from California to New York City—the longest North American self-driving car trip ever attempted.
The First Big Trip for Delphi
If you’re not in the car game, you might not have heard of Delphi, but the company is one of the largest automotive suppliers in the world, and they have a long history of innovation. From the first self-starting engine in 1912 that meant motorists would no longer have to use a hand-crank, to the invention of power steering in 1951, Delphi has been making driving easier and easier for motorists, and now, with their autonomous developments, they aim to make driving something of a spectator sport. Delphi doesn’t make cars; instead the company manufactures parts and products. They added their autonomous system to an existing car—a 2014 Audi SQ5, for the cool factor—something the company hopes consumers will be able to do to their own cars one day.
Quoted spoke with Delphi Global Communications Manager Kristen Kinley about the upcoming trip. Kinley described the route: “We will travel through the southern part of the U.S.—California, New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, through to Georgia and then up the east coast into NYC.” Though the car is capable of making complicated decisions in all types of weather, Kinley explained that fully autonomous cars are still several years in the future. So, for now, a driver sits in the driver seat, always ready to take over should the car require it. As for who will be making the trip, Kinley told us six drivers/operators will take turns during the journey. The drivers are all engineers: mechanical, software, and computer. A chase car with support engineers will follow the automated car and collect data for future developments and to test their current technologies. Kinley told Quoted that, “On this trip alone we expect to collect about two terabytes of data which is the equivalent about 25 percent of all of the printed material stored in the databases of the Library of Congress.”
We asked Kinley what the company would say to drivers unsure about sharing the road with an automated car. Kinley carefully emphasized that there will always be a driver behind the wheel, just in case. In fact, she told Quoted, “No one has a fully autonomous vehicle where the driver does not at least need to be in the loop should something go wrong. This is several years into the future. Regulations, testing, liability, cost, infrastructure all have to be in place before we will see fully-autonomous, driverless cars on public roads.” And fear not, gentle travelers: Wired reports the automated car is designed to follow all traffic laws to the letter—the car even follows highway off ramp speed limits and doesn’t turn right on red. John Absmeier, director of Delphi’s R&D lab in Silicon Valley told Wired, “If everything’s working, [the ride] should be boring. We want boring.”
Car Insurance & Self-Driving Cars
But drivers traveling along southern highways and up the east coast this week might not even know they’re sharing the road with a car driving itself. Unlike Google’s automated car, with the spinning LIDAR on the roof (a system using light and lasers to measure distance), Delphi’s system is almost entirely incognito. Wired reports Delphi hid most of the radars behind bodywork and windows (radars which look for traffic lights, road signs, and lane lines).
Quoted asked Kinley for the automated car insurance lowdown. We asked if any insurance companies are willing to cover the autonomous car: “Currently there are no policies that support automated vehicles,” Kinley said. However, many vehicles already use features of the automated car (such as collision mitigation, ADAS features, etc.) and many insurers offer discounts to drivers with these types of vehicles. Kinley continued, “Many of the active safety technologies on the road today are already helping to slash traffic related deaths and injuries. Our role as an automotive supplier to the automakers is to develop the technology to suit the needs of the automakers so that they can meet consumer and market demand, regardless of where it ends up.” Quoted asked Kinley how an accident with an autonomous car would be handled if, say, the driver hadn’t touched any controls and the car had been involved in a collision. Kinley told us, “This remains something that industry and policy makers need to address, which is why we feel fully autonomous, driverless cars are still several years away—2020, or even 2025 and beyond.”