Autonomous vehicles – the weakest link

The nut holding the steering wheel

Anyone who is truly interested in cars has been told that the weakest part is the nut holding the steering wheel. Ha ha – everyone laughs at that one. But how many actually think it applies to them?

I’m not a confident driver. Sure, I’ve driven for 30+ years, so far avoiding any serious accident or collision. Sure, I’ve driven many different makes and types of car – from a Van Diemen Formula Ford to a Ford Cosworth Scorpio. But I find driving stressful.

According to almost every article that I’ve read on the subject, I should be the ideal prospect for an autonomous car. But I’m not, for three reasons.

1911 Argyll – winner of the 2007 Gordon Bennett Rally – definitely NOT an autonomous car

The challenge

The little boy in me finds something exciting about driving, and I think it’s overcoming the challenge.

If you analyse it, driving is a pretty cerebral activity. You have to think about where you are going and how to get there.  You have to comply with many rules and regulations; Wikipedia says there are 307 numbered rules and 9 annexes in the 2004 edition of the UK’s Highway Code. And you have to control your vehicle on wet and dry, straight and curved, flat and cambered surfaces. On top of that you might find yourself arguing with Radio 4, singing along to Bohemian Rhapsody or explaining to your 10-year-old son that no, we still aren’t nearly there yet.

Who would be responsible if this driver’s car rear-ends the one in front?

But while I worry about driving, I most definitely feel I’ve achieved something if I arrive safely without mishap.

My concern is that autonomous cars provide an opportunity for over-confident, lazy, non-compliant drivers to drive even more dreadfully. After all, just like the dog they own that’s bitten your toddler, the car has a mind of its own. It’s not the owner’s fault.

The terrain

Every time I read an article on autonomous cars through social media, I feel compelled to comment. This is usually in the form of a challenge, specifically; I will be a convert if an autonomous car can get me safely from home to Marks Tey railway station and back again in the evening. So far, Tesla, Volvo, Uber, Amazon and VW have all ignored my challenge.

Every video I’ve seen demonstrating an autonomous car seems to involve a long, straight highway with multiple lanes. I therefore think the reason for refusing the Marks Tey challenge is simple – they can’t do it. Why can’t they?  It’s simply too difficult.

How well do autonomous cars deal with compliance when someone else doesn’t?

Where’s the edge of the road?

One of the things that worries me is how do automomous cars cope with a mis-match between data and reality?

I’m pretty sure that most of the route [to Marks Tey] doesn’t comply with current highway construction regulations. There are crumbled edges to road surfaces where there are no kerbs and ‘odd’ shaped mini-roundabouts. There are missing sign-posts and road markings. And there are more wiggy bits than straight ones.

My sat-nav says this doesn’t exist. Could you trust the data used by an autonomous car?

Oh, and my sat-nav still thinks that I drive across fields on my way to Harrogate as the A1 passes through Ferry Bridge.

That last one is a real biggy for me. Think about it., My sat-nav doesn’t know about a huge road construction and realignment programme that took place at the junction of the A1 and M62 about 10 years ago.

So if it were left in charge of my car, how could I be sure the sat-nav wouldn’t simply drive across the fields between here and Marks Tey? Or stop on the M62 an try to turn sharp left down some single-track lane?

And if the answer were that I would have to drive those sections, what on Earth would be the point? Those are the bits I find difficult and that I want some help with!

Oh Lord won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz

Well he has. Or more accurately, I have. And I like it. It’s a lovely place to be, which isn’t overly spoiled by all the things that make me a nervous driver. By the way, the usual reason I drive is that I’m an even more nervous passenger.

Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz

My Mercedes Benz isn’t new – but it’s much newer than the BMW it replaced, though much older than my wife’s Ford Fiesta. You see, I would rather spend my money on maintenance than depreciation. My cars tend to do high mileages, where as my wife’s cars don’t. That means she can lease hers new. But that would be prohibitively expensive for me – plus we’d end up with two small cars instead of a small car and a big car.

While not everyone would follow exactly the same path to car selection, I KNOW huge numbers of people own older cars outright and have absolutely no plans to change them. This is a model that’s actually embedded in the motor industry and will take years to change.

Depreciation and residual values

Think about this. Read any ‘What Car?’ comparison review [other titles are available] and I guarantee you that they will talk about depreciation and PCP prices. These two things are inexorably linked.

The Dacia Sandero – approx. £8,000 new

Audi A1 – approximately £14,000 new

For proof, check out these values for a Dacia Sandero (approximately £8,000 new) and an Audi A1 (approximately £14,000 new). The PCP cost of the Audi is only around £30 per month more than the Dacia even though it costs almost twice the price new. The reason – the Audi’s far higher retained value. That value is entirely dependent on desirability – people want a 2nd-hand Audi, but probably not a Dacia.

So while Tesla can charge forward with their electric autonomous cars, I fail to see how Audi, BMW and Mereceds Benz will follow. For them to get on-board with ideas about ‘driverless cars on demand’ proposed by the likes of Uber and Apple seems impossible. They have a HUGE investment in aspiration for their brand. That includes massive investment in their used car programme. They simply couldn’t afford to right that off. It has taken over 130-years to build the Mercedes brand.  through careful product evolution. Who is going to buy a 2nd-hand Mercedes if it is nothing like the latest products.

I think it’s more likely that manufacturers of cheap cars with poor residual values (like Dacia) are more likely to succeed – if they can make them cheaply. But honestly, can you see how that would work?

A little bit of the hippie in me …

At this point I will leave you to ponder Janice Joplin’s fabulous little protest song from the driver’s seat of your Tesla. I’m sure you can order-up a download through that amazing and huge central screen. If you’re a bit more ‘old school’, there’s a copy of the lyrics for your delectation at the bottom of this post.


Mercedes Benz

Janis Joplin

Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz?
My friends all drive Porsches, I must make amends.
Worked hard all my lifetime, no help from my friends,
So Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz?

Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a color TV?
Dialing For Dollars is trying to find me.
I wait for delivery each day until three,
So oh Lord, won’t you buy me a color TV?

Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a night on the town?
I’m counting on you, Lord, please don’t let me down.
Prove that you love me and buy the next round,
Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a night on the town?

Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz?
My friends all drive Porsches, I must make amends,
Worked hard all my lifetime, no help from my friends,
So oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz?

That’s it!

Written by Bob Neuwirth, Janis Joplin, Michael Mcclure • Copyright © Universal Music Publishing Group

Chris has spent nearly 30 years managing in-house and agency PR teams creating highly successful communications campaigns. With a little help from friends, Chris created Precision PR in the spring of 2017. Chris has held senior communications roles at CODA, Hyperion, CSI, Qualys and Epson, and has worked in several mid-level and senior agency roles gaining a range of strategic and hands-on skills with clients and business partners that include; Alcatel-Lucent, Adaptsys, BHA Software, IBM, Microsoft, PeopleSoft, QAD, Qlik,, SAP, SDRC and Yokogawa. Our associates have worked with many others.

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