While Level 5 automation is a distant dream.

Level 4 is already on the Road

An old story - a new technology, a shiny new toy, and the promise of a boundless future. We want this new technology to break the bonds that limit our present world, to be complete in and of itself. But history suggests that without a proper road the future will never arrive. The driverless car is only half the story. The other half is the story of the road.

For a great discussion of the difference between levels 4 and 5 of automation in driverless vehicles it's hard to beat Gill Pratt's speech at CES.

                 "at a level V automation the car can drive fully autonomously under any
                 traffic or weather  conditions, At any place at any time. No human required."

Level IV 4 on the other hand limits autonomous operation to well map areas under nominal driving conditions. Pratt's speech makes it clear that level 5 is a long way off, though it remains the declared goal of every carmaker interested in driverless vehicles.

It makes sense that carmakers would look to their product as the solution to all the challenges facing automation. Carmakers build cars, laborers build roads. History suggests, however, that no emerging technology ever fully solved the challenges it was designed to overcome. The world has always had to be rebuilt to take advantage of new innovations, and reflects their limits as well.

Imagine the challenge facing the first automobiles. A world adapted to the needs of horse-drawn transport - vehicles that were simple, rugged, and not expected travel much faster than ten miles an hour. Signage? Traffic control? Not when you are being pulled by a semi autonomous creature with his own collision avoidance system. And the first cars looked very much like the vehicles they were replacing and their name - horses carriage - reflected that.

with roads like these...........

It wasn't until the 1930s that infrastructure was built to take full advantage of the potential of the automobile. Broad, straight freeways allowed flexible mobility on a regional scale that would've been unimaginable 30 years before. The investment was an enormous, but the return was (for better and for worse) the modern world.

The difference  between the world of 1910 at 2010 is that the infrastructure that exists today is much more closely matched to the infrastructure needed for this new technology. Initially, at least, driverless vehicles will be almost identical to existing cars in size, weight, and speed. The roads are large, reasonably well marked, and increasingly well mapped. The challenge is more political and regulatory than technical. All that is required is the carving out of a lane here, a dedicated pathway there, and a system for connecting and coordinating traffic signals. Challenging enough in truth, but not on the scale of building an interstate highway system or a transcontinental railway.

Forget level 5, lets just build a road we can use

Those first few bits of infrastructure dedicated to driverless the vehicles will be like a camel's nose under the tent - a beginning that will be reasonably easy to expand upon. Before we achieve the goal of creating a car that can drive itself at any place, and at anytime, the world will become much more accommodating to autonomous transport. The discussion of level 4, or level 5 automation, will become an historical footnote.


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