At the end of March, engineers from Delphi Automotive declared themselves thrilled with the results of the first ever cross-country trip undertaken by an autonomous car. An Audi SQ5 — outfitted with a boatload of equipment including cameras, radar and lidar sensors, and computers that were cleverly arranged to obscure the fact that this was not your run-of-the-mill vehicle — set off on its 10-day journey from San Francisco on March 22, bound for New York City. Its arrival in the Big Apple was timed to coincide with the New York Auto Show.

While the engineers were no doubt pleased that the vehicle completed the 3,400-mile trip without any mishaps, the real reason for their delight was the fact that the car’s drivers did not do a stitch of driving for more than 98 percent of the journey. Writing at autoblog.com, Pete Bigelow reports that drivers actually controlled the car for only about 50 miles during the test run and that those 50 miles were accounted for by on and off ramps and a few construction zones with poorly marked or unmarked lanes.

None of this had come to pass when, on March 19, Consumer Watchdog wrote the director of the California Department of Motor Vehicles to warn against issuing rules regulating the public use of “robot cars” that are inadequate to protect public safety. In particular, the organization was insistent that autonomous vehicles allow a licensed driver to assume control when necessary. Whether this was prompted by Google’s stated plans for a fleet of cars with no steering wheel, accelerator, or brake pedal is not known. Consumer Watchdog would have been pleased with the precautions taken by Delphi Automotive in its field test, though its drivers were mostly idle and the goal of the company is to finally eliminate the driver entirely.

With specific reference to Google’s driverless car, Consumer Watchdog urged the DMV to consider the autonomous car’s shortcomings in formulating rules. These include:
• The vehicle’s sensors don’t work in the snow or in heavy rain.
• The cars can’t interact reliably with hand signals given by the human driver of another vehicle, or a policeman using only hand signals to direct traffic.
• If the sun is behind a traffic light, it can interfere with the driverless car’s ability to determine the traffic light’s color. In fact, the Delphi engineers observed the odd hiccup in the camera systems in their car when the angle of the sun was low.
• The sensors don’t recognize large potholes and would not detect an open manhole.
• Google’s driverless cars rely on detailed sensor mapping of routes before the car hits the road. Should it encounter a route that had not been specially mapped, it wouldn’t know what to do.
• The driverless cars’ video sensors can’t reliably distinguish between a tree branch blowing in the wind and a pedestrian.

Meanwhile, in Germany, Audi has its own automated driving project going. Following a modest demonstration in mid April on a 15-mile stretch of autobahn between Munich and Nürnberg, the British newspaper The Telegraph reports that the program’s leader believes self-driving cars will come to market in incremental stages, with fully autonomous cars at least 15 years away. Considering Consumer Watchdog’s reservations, that sounds like a good thing. Besides, every car care business can well use the time to consider how to adapt to accommodate this new technology.