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Self–Driving Cars: Are They Ready For Primetime?

It seems like the summer of 2016 has heralded the arrival of the self–driving car.  Uber, Google, Volvo, Ford, and others automotive and technology companies have all announced testing and pilot programs for autonomous vehicles.

The idea of self–driving (or autonomous) vehicles is not new. As a child, I remember watching Woody Allen’s movie, Sleeper, in which Woody Allen plays Mills Monroe, a clarinet player from Greenwich Village in New York. After going to the hospital for what should have been a routine procedure, he awakens (or shall we say, is revived) 200 years in his future. The movie is full of futuristic ideas about science, technology, and society. One of those ideas is a self–driving, bubble–shaped car. In retrospect, the car from Sleeper is not too different from the self–driving cars currently being tested by Google.

Google_driverless_car_at_intersection.gk

Sleeper wasn’t the first movie to envision a future with self–driving cars nor was it the last. In fact, self–driving cars are a recurring theme in many science fiction movies. While the idea of a self–driving car was firmly rooted in the world of science fiction in 1973, today it is a much different story.

Fast forward to today, where the steady stream of summer announcements might leave us with the idea a self–driving car revolution was upon us. Yet the question remains: are the announcements of self–driving cars aspirational or has the day of the practical self–driving car has arrived? To best answer this question, we have to look at what the leading technology and automotive companies are doing.

What’s Happening Now

In May 2016, Uber, the social ride–sharing service, announced that it has started testing self–driving cars in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. By August 2016, Uber extended their ambitions by acquiring Otto, a firm focused on self–driving trucks.

Uber is not alone in venturing into the world of autonomous vehicles. Leading technology companies, including Apple and Google have announced their plans for self–driving cars or are believed to be working on such projects despite the lack of public announcements. Not to be left behind, auto manufacturers are getting in on the action. Ford’s CEO, Mark Fields announced plans to introduce a fleet of autonomous cars by 2021. In addition, BMW, Ford, Volkswagen, Volvo, and Toyota have all announced plans to introduce, or anticipate market introduction of self–driving cars by 2020.

Given the level of investment and interest from leading companies, what stands in the way of a self–driving car revolution? This question is best answered by evaluating readiness in three areas: technological, legal, and regulatory.

Are We Ready?

In a recent print interview, the head of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), Christopher Hart, recently said that he could not envision widespread use of driverless car in the near future. To support his position, he cited scientific and technological challenges as the biggest barriers to be overcome.

Any remaining technology barriers can be addressed by smart engineers, programmers, and scientists. The question is whether or not those problems can be solved in a cost effective way; one that makes it economical for a company to bring forward their products. Once a company solves a problem, it is quite likely that other companies will follow suit. So, I don’t anticipate that technology will be a huge obstacle on the road to widespread self–driving car adoption.

Volvo Drive Me autonomous driving test car
Volvo Drive Me autonomous driving test car

The interesting obstacles are legal and regulatory. To illustrate this point, imagine the legal questions associated with the following scenario: An oncoming car enters the lane of a self–driving car. The self–driving car has to make a decision to continue on its current path, likely resulting in a collision that kills the vehicle’s occupants; or veering onto the sidewalk, likely injuring or killing unaware pedestrians. Who makes the decision? It’s not likely the occupants of the car, who would not have the situational awareness to quickly make an informed choice. Perhaps the decision was made the company that made the autonomous software. In the worst case scenario, it was left to an individual programmer’s judgement when he or she initially developed the program.

If the car was operated by a social ride sharing company, a taxi company, or a car service, do they have the right to override this programming? And what happens when the owner of the car decides to “hack” the computer chip and impose his or her will on that decision in advance. Considering that a car’s performance can today be enhanced by replacing the appropriate chips, this scenario is not beyond the realm of possibility. While not a requirement, society is best served if these legal and ethical questions are addressed ahead of transitioning self–driving cars out of their respective testing and pilot phases.

Regulatory issues that must be addressed will primarily center on safety and assignment of liability. In many ways, regulations can drive the adoption of new technology, as was the case with seat belts and child safety seats. I’m optimistic that regulators are fully aware of the key issues and are working in close partnership with technology and automotive companies.

Driving Adoption

The adoption of self–driving vehicles will be influenced by two groups: businesses seeking improved efficiency or cost reduction, and individuals with mobility challenges. Businesses will embrace them to improve efficiency and decrease costs. For example, if a driverless truck is used in conjunction with (or instead of) a human driver, trip time might be reduced. Driverless cars don’t need to sleep, and they work on holidays and weekends. Faster trips translate into lower costs. Second, self–driving vehicles will create a mobility path for those who are unable to drive. While people with mental or physical disabilities may represent an important initial market, they are not the only ones who will benefit from such advancements. For example, Uber is betting that commuters may opt for self–driving vehicles out of convenience or reduced cost.

So, this brings us back to our initial question:

Is It Time for Self–Driving Cars?

The short answer is: Almost. Tesla has already introduced an autopilot feature that in many ways demonstrates many, but by no means all of the needed features for a completely self–driving vehicle. Tesla’s approach means that important technological tools are already finding their way into consumer vehicles.

The widespread testing of self–driving cars does not mean that every technological barrier has been overcome or that every legal or regulatory challenge has been met. As we learn more, we will change the technology. The key to success, however, is in also ensuring that the laws and regulations keep pace.

While it’s premature to sell your current car to make space for a self–driving car, I believe that the technological, legal, and regulatory obstacles will be overcome. Every challenge won’t be solved at once, but they will be solved to the point where the transition can begin. And when companies in my vicinity decide to test their self–driving cars with members of the community, I’d love to sign up for a ride. And in case your company lawyers are concerned; yes, I’ll wear my seat belt!

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Steve_aes-114Steven B. Bryant is a futurist, researcher, and author who investigates the innovative applications and strategic implications of science and technology on society and business. He is the author of DISRUPTIVE: Rewriting the rules of physics, which is a thought–provoking book that introduces Modern Mechanics, which is a unified model of motion that fundamentally changes how we view modern physics. DISRUPTIVE is available now at Amazon.com, BarnesAndNoble.com, and other booksellers!

 

Google Car Image by Grendelkhan – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47467048

Audi RSQ Image by Florian K – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1008323

Volvo S60 Image by Mariordo (Mario Roberto Duran Ortiz) – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36566832

Photo of Steven B. Bryant © 2015 Steven B. Bryant, Photo by Amy Slutak