Are Autonomous Cars Just Around the Corner?

Three years ago, we all believed that autonomous cars were just around the corner – and we felt that was a good thing. Retain human control for the fabled blast in the country, but let the machines take on the drudgery of commuting and long-distance motorway work – and getting us home from the pub!

Range Rover Sport that managed to drive the Coventry ring road

So what’s changed?

It was shocking to read, in Autocar, that Andy Palmer, boss of recently floated Aston Martin, quoted as saying “The idea of full autonomy being widespread in my lifetime is absurd. Full Level 5 systems are a moonshot.” As an aside, Mr Palmer was also scathing about Brexit, confirming that the delay was the worst of all worlds, preferring a decision, any decision, to be made to close down the uncertainty.

Andy Palmer of Aston Martin

We have some doubts about the direction of Aston Martin Lagonda Ltd as a company, but we respect Andy Palmer as a well-connected, senior car-industry figure. So when he says that full autonomy is a pipe-dream, we listen.

Another issue revealed to us is the autonomy “big accident” risk. When autonomous cars crash, they tend to be large ones! If humans have crashes, mostly they will realise that something has gone wrong and slam on the brakes at the last split-second. Whilst this does not prevent the crash, it does mean that some deceleration occurs before impact, and so the crash happens at much reduced speed. Typically, crashes in autonomous cars happen because of a failure to correctly interpret the surroundings of the vehicle. And thus the autonomous car hasn’t noticed anything wrong – so it ploughs into the obstruction at full speed! Ooops.

There have been two famous crashes, where Teslas have sped straight into the side of juggernauts parked across the highway. Speculation among the online community (oh dear, not the most reliable source then) is that the crashes happened because seeing a juggernaut sideways is such an unusual occurrence that the AI-developed software interprets the sight as an overpass bridge and so ignores it.

Finally, there is the fabled issue of how can one let a computer decide whether to swerve away from a man in the road, if that then endangers two children on the pavement.

However, we are not convinced that these issues will prevent autonomous cars. At its present stage of development, it appears that sensors, processing power and software are not quite there. But these are engineering problems that are easy to define and will be solved.

  1. Computers are very good at measuring distances and heights. Therefore, interpreting a truck as a truck and not a bridge can be pre-programmed. Likewise, new types of sensors will be developed so that cars will know much better than human drivers what is going on around the vehicle. Add to that car-to-car connectivity, so that each car knows the intention of all the vehicles within half a mile, and suddenly an autonomous car is much better placed to co-ordinate its movements with those of all the surrounding cars.

  2. We do not agree with the idea that humans are better at split-second, morally loaded decisions than computers. In a crash situation, the choices made by a driver will be essentially random, or pre-programmed by their normal reaction. Given a little forethought by the software programmers, 99.9% of situations can be managed for an optimal result rather than the vague human output.

  3. Convoys of communicating vehicles can travel closely together, allowing for more efficient use of roads, and greater fuel efficiency.

  4. We wonder if Mr Palmer’s reluctance over self-driving cars is that it removes a key justification for buying an Aston Martin – and that providing such systems is also beyond the capacity of a relatively tiny car company?
  5. However, combining human drivers with convoys of autonomous vehicles could be tricky.

It is this last point which is exercising us! We believe that fully autonomous roads will happen within the next 10 years. Our worry is that will the take over of roads by autonomous vehicles mean that car enthusiasts in their old-fashioned, petrol engined “classics” are banned from going out at all eventually?

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The New Land Rover Defender is Here! Hurrah!

Jaguar Land Rover is ramping up the excitement for the launch of the new Land Rover Defender! Like most petrolheads, we have a soft spot for the lumbering old beast – and not just the nearest muddy river in which we could go wading.

Camouflaged Defender at Goodwood

Here it is at Goodwood, with a teaser run up the hill. Picture and full story in Autocar.

Defender in Kenya on expedition!

And again, this JLR press release photo shows the chunky vehicle “in its natural surroundings”. Of course, that’s the image they would like – and to be fair, it does present a better picture than a crowded school gate or even a hipster smoothie bar in Shoreditch. But the reality is that this model is an up-market “macho” SUV, without the utility bit. So an SV… er but it isn’t really sporty either… so it is just a V!

Think of it as a replacement Discovery, now that the actual Disco has gone all curvy. Even the styling looks very much like the Disco Mk3 / Mk4.

But we like the square, tough looks. And have every expectation that the off-road performance will be excellent: look at those short overhangs for tackling ditches. The on-road ride will be good too, with independent suspension and clever suspension.

Most exciting of all, we hear rumours of the Land Rover traditional three abreast seating. That will gain acres of press coverage!

And now the bad news. The new Land Rover is not a £20,000 vehicle. Even at £30,000, only the most basic of basic specs will come close. In a usable condition, think £40,000.

But you know what, we want one!

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Is Jaguar In The Last Chance, er, Saloon?

The world has been cruel to Jaguar Cars. But our interest has been sparked by the shocking news that Jaguar is going all electric. (OK, that’s enough of the live-wire puns).

Today JLR announced a £3.4bln loss for the last quarter. We feel the pain!

How did it come to this?

During Ford’s ownership of the famous feline company, the product design went from PANACHE to PASTICHE. Who on earth thought that the X-Type or the S-Type were attractive? Not the potential customers, that’s for sure. So Jaguar’s engineers produced the masterful all-aluminium XJ8 X350 series. Only for the designers to clothe it in yet another re-hash of 1960’s glories.

Enter Ian Callum as Chief Designer. The man behind the Aston Martin DB7 – which owed much to Jaguar already – has created a modern, coherent range of Jaguar saloons. But still they are not selling. The production plant at Castle Bromwich has been on a 3 day week. Autocar magazine reports that sales in the last 3 months of 2018 collapsed – see https://www.autocar.co.uk/car-news/industry/opinion-can-new-defender-help-turn-around-jaguar-land-rover.

And now the resultant loss is declared. Much as many people will want to blame Brexit, the real reason is falling demand in China.

Jaguar correctly joined the SUV market. Not a natural arena for the maker of sleek low sports saloons and convertibles, but financially astute. The oddly-named F-Pace and E-Pace started off with great sales, but now seem to have slowed too.

And the final bright star, leading the way to the future? The I-Pace (as pictured at the top). All-electric, stunningly pretty, and earlier to the market than all the main competitors. What an achievement!

It is widely believed that the large XJ replacement, due later this year, will be electric only, as a Tesla model S competitor. What a bold decision!

And, in Autocar again, is the rumour that the slow-selling XF and XE will be replaced by a smaller all-electric saloon.

Suddenly, it seems Jaguar is betting the farm on going electric. Is it too soon? A niche within a niche? Or is it the boldest, most far-sighted highly-charged management choice in a long time? (Sorry, couldn’t help that one last pun sneaking in)

The world would be a poorer place for our children without Jaguar. They need the sales urgently!

So go out and buy an XF or XE RIGHT NOW! You owe it to your family.

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