Most people already know that there was a fatality in May, 2016, with a Tesla Model S car driving under a left-turning tractor trailer. There are indications that there may be driver distraction involved, but that is still unknown. This was the first fatality of any Level 2 self-driving car in autonomous mode out of 130 million miles driven in autonomous mode, but not the first accident. Self-driving cars are rated from 0 (no automatic driving features) to 4 (totally self-driving with no driver, or steering wheel, required). The Level 2 car involved in the fatality did require a driver to agree before activation of Autopilot that the feature “is an assist feature that requires you to keep your hands on the steering wheel at all times . . . to maintain control and responsibility for your vehicle while in use . . . and to be prepared to take over at any time.” This is not the self-driving, no driver needed, vehicle of the future.
Why Develop Self-Driving Cars?
Here are a few of the numerous reasons given for developing smart vehicles:
- Since 81% of car accidents are due to driver error, it is possible there would be fewer accidents with a computer in control.
- Insurance costs might decrease since there is less chance for human error.
- Drivers could better use commuting time reading, working, talking on the phone, or even sleeping.
- Congestion, “rubber necking,” and other traffic problem caused by humans would be minimized using the smart communication between all smart cars on the road, along with smart traffic signals.
- Cars would probably be fueled by electricity, minimizing gasoline use.
- No longer would disabled individuals, or elderly drivers, have to depend on public transportation or other assistance.
So What is the Downside?
At least for the near future, there are a number of issues:
- Costs could be significant and out of reach for most people.
- A mix of standard and smart cars on the road decreases the benefits of smart communication. There will be a number of early adopters, but most people will still want the control of their vehicle and will not trust control to the car.
- Hackers could infiltrate the communication between smart cars as a whole system, or individually.
- Heavy rain or snow would be a problem for the laser sensor on the roof, leading to questions of what a driver could do in the event of a technology breakdown.
- If a smart traffic light broke down and there was a police officer or other individual directing traffic, what would be the response of a self-driving vehicle?
- These vehicles rely on GPS mapping, at least for now. GPS is not always accurate and could direct a car against traffic on a one-way street or other dangerous maneuvers.
- What about accidents? They will happen, as no technology is foolproof. When there is an accident, who is the responsible party? There are several potential culprits – drivers, software developers, or manufacturers.
These fully self-driven, smart vehicles will surely be on the road one day, but that day may not be in the foreseeable future for mass adoption. There are still many situations to resolve, not only in the technology and cars themselves, but with roadways, traffic signalling, a new set of rules for the road, and – most of all – the acceptance and knowledge of drivers themselves.