Is the idea of sleeping in your autonomous car getting exhausting?
Elon Musk claims we will be able to sleep in our driving cars by the end of next year. Are Australians ready to embrace this idea or is it an exhausting idea? We interview everyday drivers to find out.
Earlier this year, Chief Executive of Tesla Elon Musk, announced that it will be safe for drivers to fall asleep in their ‘fully self-driving cars’ by the end of 2020.
A fully self-driving or autonomous car is designed to be far superior to humans by identifying hazards and taking action faster. And not only will a self-driving car pick us up, park us, and take us to our destination without intervention; we will also be able to catch up some shut eye—a prospect Top Gear host Chris Harris finds “mildly terrifying”.
Australia already has vehicles with driverless features and Perth is expected to test on-demand driverless cars on private roads later this year. While Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland already test autonomous cars on their roads.
In May 2018, Australian transport ministers agreed to a new uniform law which will allow a driving system to perform the dynamic driving tasks when it is engaged in autopilot mode. The law will come into effect in 2020 and will provide flexible compliance and enforcement options.
Self-driving cars are certainly a hot topic but they’re nothing new.
The idea came about in the roaring 1920s when ‘Houdina Radio Control’ demonstrated their radio-controlled “American Wonder” up New York’s Broadway and Fifth Avenue through moderate congestion. The car was equipped with a transmitting antenna and operated by a second car that followed it while transmitting radio impulses to get it moving. It was quite the spectacle and opened up the doors to a world of driverless technology.
Fast forward to May 2012, when Google modified a Toyota Prius with its driverless technology and became the first licence issued in the USA for a self-driven car.
And in 2014, Tesla Motors announced its Model S vehicles would come equipped with autopilot, enabling the vehicle to carry out a number of tasks autonomously including parking. Today all new Tesla cars come standard with advanced hardware and eight surround cameras with 360 degrees of visibility and up to 250 metres of range.
But wait, there’s more.
You can also summon your Tesla with its ‘Enhanced Summon’ feature enabling it to navigate complex environments, manoeuvring around objects to find you anywhere in a parking lot. Then all you need to do is get in and tell it where to go.
Volvo has also jumped on the self-driving bandwagon by unveiling its 360c concept last year, designed to remove the stress of travel by providing a sleeping environment, living room and entertainment space.
So could sleeping in your self-driving car actually help resolve driver fatigue; an issue that is prevalent in Australia?
According to the Australian Transport Council, it’s estimated that 20-30 percent of all fatal crashes on Australian roads are due to fatigue.
The Transport Accident Commission of Victoria has compared impairment associated with driving while tired, to driving while drunk and found that a driver who has been awake for 17 hours has the ability similar to a driver with a blood alcohol concentration of 0.05.
Self-driving cars can without a doubt, assist drivers with the burdensome parts of driving so they can carry out more interesting, or rather, dormant, activities.
This all sounds very tasty, so what could possibly go wrong? A lot actually.
In 2016, driver Joshua Brown of Ohio was watching a movie in his 2015 Tesla Model S and was killed when the vehicle’s autopilot failed to distinguish a large semi-truck and trailer crossing the highway and attempted to drive full speed under the trailer.
Tesla reacted by publishing a blog stating “Autopilot is getting better all the time, but it is not perfect and still requires the driver to remain alert.”
And in early 2018, a self-driving Volvo XC90 hit and killed pedestrian Elaine Herzberg in Arizona in what was the first case of a pedestrian death caused by an autonomous vehicle.
So, this begs the question—are there just too many unpredictable conditions on the roads and potential tech failures to feel comfortable enough to fall asleep at the wheel?
Would you feel safe falling asleep while the car does the driving?
We asked some everyday drivers from Sydney and Melbourne who all happen to love driving, what they think about autonomous vehicles and the idea of sleeping in one.
Beatrish, 38, Sydney. Designer and mother of two
Beatrish thinks that the concept of self-driving isn’t far-fetched and it’s just a further extension on cruise control.
“It will require some getting used to but eventually it could make long distance travel on highways easier, less driver fatigue.”
And how about sleeping in one while it’s driving?
“I’d be unsure about this as technology comes with potential for glitches. I can’t get my Bluetooth to always connect with my phone but I’m supposed to trust a completely cutting edge mode of travel to get from point a to b without some human supervision?” she asks sceptically.
Beatrish confesses she’s too much of a control freak to fall asleep without supervising the driver.
Hector, 37, Melbourne. Account Manager
Hector believes driver assist features such as adaptive cruise control and emergency braking are useful but autonomous cars are a step too far, not to mention falling asleep in one.
“I would feel really anxious sleeping in an autonomous car. The trust isn’t there yet,” he says.
“I don’t think we can ever fully trust technology and there are too many variables on the road to think an accident can’t or won’t happen.”
He does agree that during peak hour traffic an autonomous car could allow you to sit back and relax while taking car, while taking the stress out of driving.
“But having control over the vehicle is part of the fun. Driving along the great ocean road wouldn’t be the same otherwise!”
Natalie, 43, Melbourne. Secondary School Teacher
Natalie really enjoys driving but thinks the concept of self-driving is appealing for long-distance routes, but she doesn’t trust the technology yet either.
“The idea sounds very nice in theory, but I would want self-driving cars to be tested here in Australia for many years before I use one,” she explains.
“I do enjoy a nap on long country drives as a passenger, so the idea of the car taking over the boring parts of driving while I catch up on sleep sounds great. But I would need to see many other people asleep in a self-driving before I felt safe to try it myself.”
Deborah, 69, Sydney. Retired
Deborah thinks the idea of sleeping in a self-driving car would increase anxiety, which in turn would make her more fatigued. She also doesn’t trust technology to be bug-free.
“Computers get hacked so why wouldn’t cars! I can just picture it, I’d start to drift off into a deep sleep and BANG! I would never be able to fully go to sleep in a driving car- one eye would always be open watching the road and making sure the technology is doing the right thing,” she explains.
“Falling asleep at the wheel of a self-driving car is supposed to be relaxing. But it seems like it defeats the purpose as I’d wind up being all anxious.”
Computers often get hacked and like any technology, autonomous cars could be vulnerable to bugs and also general failures.
In response to this wide-spread concern, Mercedes Benz stated that automated technology in their cars sold in Australia was so rigorously tested, they could often respond better than humans.
"The amount of data that is gathered from the testing of autonomous vehicles is more than the data that Airbus use to test the A380,” Mercedes Benz Public Relations Manager David McCarthy said.
And Tesla says that statistically, vehicles driving themselves have a much better safety record than ones driven by humans.
Regardless, it seems that many drivers don’t trust the idea of sleeping in an autonomous car yet and prefer to have control of their vehicle for peace of mind alone.
Time will tell if drivers will seek comfort in the idea of falling asleep at the wheel of their autonomous car. We’ll chat again after 2020.
Natasha Laging is a Digital Content Specialist with a passion for the automotive industry. She has previously worked for the carsales network contributing news and features, and overseeing the execution of strategic social media strategies. She has a special love of Aston Martins and 1960s Ford Mustangs.