Why the road to autonomous vehicles is uphill

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. -- To hear a panel of industry experts describe it Tuesday afternoon, taking consumers into the world of fully autonomous self-driving cars is going to be a long and challenging trip.

For starters, consumers don't particularly want it.

A survey conducted in April for the Alliance of Automobile Manufactures found that 42 percent of men think the technology is simply a bad idea. Nearly a fourth of those surveyed said autonomous cars should be "banned," reports Alliance CEO Mitch Bainwol.

In a consumer sampling that might give automaker legal departments pause, more than a third said that if autonomous vehicles come to market, automakers and their software suppliers ought to bear legal responsibility for traffic accidents.

More than 80 percent were concerned that computer hackers would take over control of their cars. Bjorn Giesler, project leader for Audi AG Piloted Driving program, told an audience that the industry wasn't doing a good job of addressing such security concerns.

"We're all concerned about security," he acknowledged. "But does any automaker actually have a team of hackers working for them to see if they can break in and kill the system?"

There are also technology roadblocks -- satellite mapping, for one, says Scott Winchip, Robert Bosch LLC's regional president for chassis systems control.

"To get to urban driving," he says, "you will need very detailed map data that measures not in feet, but in inches."

Automakers also have failed so far to partner with military suppliers who have been working for years on unmanned and self-guided vehicles.

There are also unresolved questions, including what happens when an autonomous system clicks off, handing power back to the driver -- but the driver is incapacitated, asleep, inebriated or injured.

Winchip says the obvious solution will be to immediately stop the vehicle. But what impact a stopped vehicle might have on a highway of moving traffic remains a question for the future.

You can reach Lindsay Chappell at lchappell@crain.com

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