10X Exclusive: Future of driverless cars with Patrick Mallejacq
Priya Wadhwa
10X Technology

10X Exclusive: Future of driverless cars with Patrick Mallejacq

Planning for driverless cars begins today.

Patrick Mallejacq is the Secretary General of PIARC World Road Association. He will be presenting the ‘Autonomous vehicles, challenges and opportunities for road authorities’ report at 26th World Road Congress in Abu Dhabi this October. SME10X speaks to him about the future of Driverless cars.

Driverless cars are a subject of much debate, from their feasibility, to regulations requirements and potential safety concerns. Nonetheless, they are the future we as a world are moving towards.

In order to make this future our reality quicker, authorities and experts need to understand the potential challenges of driverless cars and start planning to resolve them today.

To this effect, governments and foremost experts in the fields of road infrastructure, transport and technology convene every four years at the PIARC World Road Congress.

In October this year, the 26th World Road Congress will be held in Abu Dhabi for this very purpose. One of the key topics on the agenda is to discuss whether transport authorities around the world are ready for the advent of driverless cars.

Organised by the World Road Association (PIARC) and the Abu Dhabi Department of Transport (DoT), the upcoming World Road Congress is expected to see more than 5,000 delegates from 120 countries and at least 40 government ministers.

"The learning is clear. To get driverless cars on the road we need to bring together road authorities, manufacturers, technology companies and other experts to begin planning for a future where driverless cars are part of our everyday lives."
Patrick Mallejacq, the Secretary General of PIARC World Road Association

"Take white road markings for example. Driverless cars use these to help guide themselves - and in a lab or controlled environment this works well. But the real world is very different. It’s not an issue in Abu Dhabi, but in certain parts of Europe road maintenance budgets just haven’t kept up with the levels of demand and white markings are not that easy to distinguish," wrote Patrick Mallejacq, the Secretary General of PIARC World Road Association

However, driverless cars also need to be programmed to read road signs, the question is, which one? Mallejacq wrote, "These are the sorts of decisions that need to be made now, as equipment like this can be expensive, and in many cases road administrations will not be able to fund them."

Driverless cars are built to use many programmes to view and track multiple signs and people moving on the road. Hence, for them to work, basic road infrastructure needs to be in place. Moreover, everything will need to be standardised at international levels.

"Planning infrastructure takes years and then developing it takes years too. And when it’s there its design can’t be easily changed. So, it is a matter of planning. Planning has always involved strategic-level decisions but now the conversation could become really complex with many different factors."
Patrick Mallejacq, the Secretary General of PIARC World Road Association
SME10X spoke to Patrick Mallejacq to get a better understanding of the future of driverless cars. Here is the exclusive interview:

You mention driverless cars view white road markings. What else are they trained to look for?

Given the state-of-the-art technology that is being put to use today, driverless cars can do a lot more than just detect white road markings.

With the advanced sensory systems installed, the driverless cars can assess the environment around them and have the ability to detect vehicles, road signs, pedestrians and lane markings. It can also detect the edges of roads; thus, any collisions can be avoided on the roads.

Every piece of technology that has been implemented will play a key role in the operational use of the sensory systems. In particular, lidar sensors is an essential component as it can provide accurate distance and size information, which is useful for both detecting objects and roadway mapping. Additionally, it can help the cars identify the exact road markings and know its position when it comes to avoiding the edges of the roads.

The radar sensors are also useful for assessing accurate distances and this can help the cars significantly especially when there is poor weather and low illumination. At the same time, while the video sensors can have a fixed aim or view, there is also room to install multiple cameras within the cars that would provide a full 360 degree view.

How will driverless cars account for the unpredictability of human drivers on the street? For instance, if the streets were only comprised of driverless cars, they can talk to each other; but can they be safe with human drivers on the streets as well?

While we believe there’s a strong interest for driverless cars, at the same time, we also expect a high number of cars to still be driven by humans.

While the driverless cars are fully equipped with a number of sensory systems, these work best in ideal situations when there is good weather and illumination. However, it cannot fully account for unexpected situations where their computing power can be limited and these unexpected situations can be caused by human drivers.

This all comes down to the programming of the cars and need to be trained on what to do in extreme situation. For example, it would need to distinguish between a truck travelling in the opposite way which is in the next lane (safe) and a truck in the same lane coming towards the car (danger).

Therefore, to avoid crashes between driverless and human-operated cars, we must ensure that no driverless cars hit the road before they are fully trained and programmed to operate in simulations that are reflective of real life situations that they may face in extreme conditions.

Progression to driverless cars has already started with automatic cars' cruise control abilities. What are the next steps we might see in the future?

In the short term we will see many more trials, in many different settings. This is essential, in order to better understand what the pros and cons of autonomous vehicles are and what is needed to accommodate them. Many support technologies are needed, such as positioning, and trials between all stakeholders will allow the best options to emerge.

Business models between car manufacturers, equipment manufacturers, IT service providers, and road authorities, will also need to be designed, so that roles and responsibilities are established in a way that is mutually beneficial and serves the greater good.

It will also be interesting to see whether such vehicles will first develop commercially in urban areas or on motorways or even rural areas.

When will we see autonomous vehicles make up the majority of vehicles on the road?

It is quite difficult to say precisely when, as a lot of research and testing is still being undertaken. Having said that, we must understand that driverless cars cannot be on the roads until the roads are designed to have them. Therefore, once we have the right infrastructure, only then can we have fully adaptable driverless cars on the road, with or without human drivers sharing the road with them. Of course, it is also important to understand that different countries around the world would have to rebuild or at least equip certain parts of their infrastructure for driverless cars to take to the roads.

It is also essential that all road users be properly informed. Since roads will accommodate autonomous vehicles, the specific behaviours of such vehicles need to be well understood by all.

Driverless cars are essentially massive and intricately build computers on the street. Will this increase risks for parts becoming faulty and malfunctioning? What are its implications on safety? Will this reduce the lifespan of the car as well?

Technology is constantly being updated every day and the autonomous car industry is no exception. It is important to understand that technology will continue to evolve and there will be necessary changes to make the updates.

At the same time, driverless cars will not be operational until we are confident it’s safe for all passengers in the cars as well as others on the road. On the other hand, while software programs might be relatively easy to update, hardware is not. As is the case when new products hit the market, by the time that driverless cars are widely available, these parts might be relatively cheaper to replace and update, and so we need to ensure that manufacturers are making cars equipped with top quality hardware that has long-lasting effects.

Security is also an issue that is considered very seriously. The risk of malicious attacks is real and countermeasures are necessary.

What are the positives for people and society as a whole to go for driverless cars?

When discussing the future of driverless cars, there are a number of factors we should consider.

The social impact of going driverless certainly has its positives as it would mean accessibility for disabled and abled people alike. There are also beneficial advantages as it would have huge impacts on the economy given that it will reduce the number of crashes, fuel efficiency and better transportation.

At SME10X, we believe the cons of driverless cars are dependent upon the decisions government and corporate leaders make today. If they make sure driverless cars do not hit the streets without proper safety and security measures in place, then there will be fewer worries regarding autonomous vehicles. We'll be keeping track of the regulations to report back on the safety and concerns of driverless cars.