At a lazy Sunday brunch recently, I was thrown into one of the common debates rollicking the future of transportation: Are self-driving cars imminent, or is the industry and media attention just a bunch of hoopla?
It's a fair question, to which I respond: Both. Kind of.
Several companies are targeting the early 2020s for autonomous vehicle deployment. General Motors' Cruise Automation wants to remove driver controls as early as 2019. One can spy autonomously piloted cars in Pennsylvania, Arizona, California and Michigan, among other locations globally. At the same time, wide open questions exist about the regulatory framework for such vehicles. And the technology isn't quite there, from sensors to software to the integration of driverless features into the overall vehicle.
For instance, one company navigating its future in the autonomous age is Faurecia, the traditional Tier 1 supplier. At a recent exhibition of the company's next-gen interior products, I was shown tech that previously I had seen only in concept vehicles or futuristic art.
In one case, they showed a seating product, developed with supplier ZF Friedrichshafen for 2020, that can shift between configurations for driving, working and relaxing while in autonomous mode. Part of the feature was enabling the seat to swivel and readjust. I wondered why, if they were already re-engineering the cockpit for autonomous cars, Faurecia wouldn't make it so that seats could rotate 180 degrees and face inward — as many of the most advanced driverless concepts feature.
"There is a big challenge to integrate the seat and all of the airbags," replied Troy Ziemba, Faurecia's director of technical customer interface. "Will the airbags move with the seat? These are the things our cockpit-of-the-future people are thinking about." He also pointed out that there at 208 regulatory requirements for front-crash airbags to meet, which aren't going away tomorrow.
Whether you can swivel 50 degrees or 180 degrees isn't a make-or-break issue for the driverless future, but it is one of many everyday issues car engineers grapple with. Similarly, reporters covering self-driving cars should remember that we can offer our audience a peek of what this is all building up to, but must temper that with the hard realities of the present.
— Shiraz Ahmed