Despite what Elon Musk and other futurists and technophiles say, self-driving cars promise too much in the short-term. Pundits say we’re five or six years away from autonomous driving becoming a reality. Not so fast.
A truly autonomous car (also known as self-driving, robotic or driverless), one that can, without intervention from the human occupant, go from point A to point B, faces some hurdles to clear.
NHTSA Self-Driving Car Classifications
This type of driverless car is known as a “Level 4” autonomous car in the current National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) legal terminology, that assigns five levels of automated driving from 0 through 4.
To move to autonomous, Level 4 cars requires a shift that will require massive amounts of philosophical, technological, and legislative effort and change.
No one denies the benefits autonomous driving vehicles promise. It will make driving safer, more fuel efficient and less tiring. But, the techno-utopians spouting the benefits overlook the immediate challenges.
First, there are the ethical considerations. What happens when the car finds itself in a predicament where there is no way to avoid an accident? To put a finer point on it, how can a driver—human or machine—choose between killing or maiming a pedestrian or the occupants of an oncoming car? Humans make split-second judgment calls like these in accidents everyday. While actual computers may react more quickly and more precisely, there are few, if any, vehicle-borne computer systems that can take in and interpret all the data a human can.
Machine ethics isn’t a highly developed field as yet. Even if it were, humans would have to program those cars with ethical code. But that means not just humans, but corporations, would be directly responsible for the decisions made, in real-time, by a machine, somewhere potentially thousands of miles away and years down the road. Where does culpability lie? Who should go to jail?
We expect computer-driven cars to be at least 10 times safer than those piloted by humans. We have autonomous cars testing on American highways, mostly in California and Nevada, but also in Florida and Michigan. Those cars are required by law to have human occupants ready to take controls at all times. They are works in progress, and while they are able to achieve impressive feats of self-driving, they still aren’t completely ready to deal with the world at large.
There are practical matters, too. The first challenge is packaging the technology into something that leaves room for humans and their cargo. As it is today, the smartest current autonomous cars have tech that occupies the entire cargo area, and some must have a technician with a laptop monitoring its status at all times.
Then, there’s the cost issue. Today’s largely experimental hardware and software costs tens of millions of dollars. Even accounting for Moore’s Law, miniaturization won’t happen quickly and, when it does, government subsidies or sufficient consumer demand will be required to make the technology affordable.
Assuming we can overcome the ethical, technological and cost issues, there are dozens of potential legal pitfalls in the development of a self-driving car to overcome. Three big ones stand out: product liability, legislation, and multi-jurisdictionality.
There is a practical application of the moral question posed before. Who should foot the bill when people get hurt?
Even allowing for the predicted order of magnitude reduction in crashes promised by fully autonomous cars, that leaves some number of accidents per year that could see some or all of the financial responsibility fall on the vehicle manufacturer. That’s enough to put a multibillion-dollar strain on the automotive industry—and potentially enough to put some companies out of business.
Next, there’s the issue of legislating and regulating the construction, sale, and use of autonomous cars on America’s roads.
Driving is a state issue, with the age for licensure, testing requirements, renewal periods, penalties, laws, and rules all varying—sometimes widely. Composing legislation that allows a single autonomous car to solo-navigate more than one of the 50 states will be a monumental challenge.
There are so many potential variations in laws, manufacturers could be forced to build vehicles that conform to the laws of each of the jurisdictions in which they sell cars. Much like the current emissions-regulations scenario, this could prove to be an expensive and burdensome situation for carmakers.
Auto Industry Experts Are Cautious
FiatChrysler’s CEO, Sergio Marchionne said he thinks the prospects for fully autonomous driving are overstated.
He added that the stronger role taken by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in the U.S. is likely to result in slower adoption of automated-driving features.
More Practical Than Autonomous Driving
A more practical solution will be for automotive technologies to strike a balance between extending our abilities without doing too much for the driver. We already have examples of this in parallel parking and lane change avoidance. When implemented correctly, automation quickly feels like just a natural part of driving.
The key becomes how to merge human and machine abilities effectively.
No system can yet match a human driver’s ability to respond to the unexpected, and sudden failure could be catastrophic at high speed. Ironically, however, where there is too little to keep the driver engaged, performance drops as well. Someone who is daydreaming while the car drives itself will be unprepared to take control when necessary.
Bryan Reimer, a research scientist at MIT’s Age Lab, worries that too much reliance on autonomy could cause drivers’ skills to atrophy. A parallel can be found in airplanes, where increasing reliance on autopilot technology over the past few decades has been blamed for reducing pilots’ manual flying abilities.
It’s tempting to embrace the promise of autonomous driving. The benefits are compelling and undeniably good. But, if technology alone was the solution, we wouldn’t need pilots on airplanes and the Apollo astronauts would have been out of a job. The fact is that technology moves faster than humans can adapt in some cases. Self-driving cars appear to be one of those cases where the technological promise is moving faster than human acceptance and legislation.
For more, see Car & Driver.