You may think that autonomous cars have nothing to do with classic cars, but they may pose the biggest threat yet to our hobby

Recently, the European Commission proposed mandating the fitment of safety technology, including Advanced Emergency Braking (AEB) and Intelligent Speed Assistance (ISA), in all new cars. The European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association (ACEA) welcomed it as a proposal to further improve vehicle safety, but stressed that some proposed measures require further review.

For example, ACEA recommended a step-wise approach for introducing intelligent speed assistance (ISA) systems in cars, explaining that based on information from road-sign recognition cameras and GPS-linked speed limit databases ISA systems can prevent drivers from exceeding speed limits, but that there are still many issues with infrastructure – road signs are not harmonised across Europe and information on speed limits is not reliable enough, digital maps are not fully populated with speed limit information for all roads, and data are not always updated. Plus camera-based systems simply cannot anticipate all scenarios, such as when traffic signs are covered.

You might be forgiven for asking why you are reading about this in a publication devoted to classic cars? Well bear with us, because this relentless march of technology could end up restricting (or denying altogether) our right to drive those very classics on the road. After all, the ultimate goal of all this technology is to take any responsibility away from the driver to eliminate the main cause of accidents – driver error. Yet while automatic lights, automatic wipers, autonomous emergency breaking, lane assist control and all the rest can each be argued on their own merits as a step forwards in road safety, their cumulative effect is to dumb down the driving experience to the point that many drivers are simply not safe or capable of controlling a machine on their own. Reach the required level of ineptitude in the general driving public, and the case for fully autonomous cars will effectively be made.

Where will that leave those of us who do actually want to drive our classics? If autonomous cars are deemed to be inherently safer than those driven by the likes of you and me, then how do you argue for the right to continue driving a classic in a public space? Some commentaries already argue that individuals should be banned from driving once autonomous vehicles become fully operational.

That may be an extreme viewpoint, but any argument will have zealots on both sides who take extreme positions and either distort or ignore the facts to further their agenda. Classic cars will be no different in this respect from any other bandwagon. It does, however, illustrate the point that once autonomous cars become a reality, the argument for many people will turn not to how cars that have to be driven manually can co-exist with them, but how they can be removed from the road.

And it is no good burying your head in the sand and saying: ‘It won’t happen in my lifetime.’ As Kieren McCarthy reported in May in an article on autonomous vehicles on The Register, General Motors’ chief technology officer Jon Lauckner has gone on record as saying he expects GM’s first autonomous cars to go into public service in 2019. Another company, the Google-linked Waymo, trumped that by claiming their cars would enter public service in 2018. That’s right, this year!
There is, however, no need to panic just yet. Dig a little deeper into the details of those claims and you realise they are only talking about taxis, cars owned and run by the manufacturer, not vehicles for general sale. In part that’s because they would be prohibitively expensive – Lauckner himself admitted that right now the autonomous system costs more than the vehicle itself.

However, an even bigger stumbling block at the moment is reliable and accurate GPS and mapping, which brings us back to where we started this story with the ACEA. That is the reason why Waymo is only proposing to launch a taxi service in Phoenix, because that is where they have carried out most of their testing and so it is the only place where they have the required data to make their autonomous cars work.

McCarthy again: ‘GPS signals, while absolutely amazing, are only accurate for the likes of us to around 10 metres, typically. As Lauckner admitted, that can be the difference between being on the freeway and in the trees… There is another kind of precision that is needed for an autonomous vehicle to be safe on the roads: accurate maps. [Without a more accurate model of the world’s roadways] autonomous cars would simply have to do too much computation on live sensor data to perceive and understand their surroundings and stay safe.’

Further proof that autonomous cars are not nearly as advanced as some would have us believe came this month from Thatcham Research and the Association of British Insurers, who issued an urgent call to carmakers and legislators for greater clarity around the capability of vehicles sold with technology that does more and more driving on behalf of motorists. The call comes in the wake of growing reports of people crashing whilst over-relying on technology which is not yet designed to drive the car independently.

Matthew Avery, Head of Research at Thatcham Research, said: “We are starting to see real-life examples of the hazardous situations that occur when motorists expect the car to drive and function on its own. Specifically, where the technology is taking ownership of more and more of the driving task, but the motorist may not be sufficiently aware that they are still required to take back control in problematic circumstances. Fully automated vehicles that can own the driving task from A to B, with no need for driver involvement whatsoever, won’t be available for many years to come. Until then, drivers remain criminally liable for the safe use of their cars and as such, the capability of current road vehicle technologies must not be oversold.”

All of this is, of course, in addition to pressures on the classic car movement from environmental concerns. We’ll look at that topic in a future issue, but for now we will finish by saying that this is not meant to sow doom and gloom among the classic car fraternity or to spread fear that our hobby is facing an imminent demise. Instead the aim is merely to raise awareness of the potential threats from new technology. After all, forewarned is forearmed.