A future with driverless cars is like a utopia the world is speeding toward. To the hopeful masses, autonomous vehicles offer the possibility of moving more people efficiently and even reducing hazards brought on by human errors. But while the technology has been heralded as a revolution as significant as the horseless carriage, it also introduces logistics issues andnew risk. What remains unclear is exactly how and when the dream of autonomous vehicles will be realized and what it will take to ensure safety.
Despite eagerness in densely populated states to roll out autonomous vehicles, a fatal crash inArizonahas slowed the momentum on testing self-driving cars. But without being able to test automated vehicles, how can progress be made? And when something goes wrong, who is to blame?
When it comes to safety, “There’s a whole set of issues around the law in autonomous vehicles, and it includes liability, cybersecurity, and privacy,” says Anthony Foxx, secretary of transportation during the Obama administration. Addressing these issues before the technology becomes widespread is the responsibility of citizens, federal and state governments, and the auto industry.
The Role Humans Will Play
Most predict that mass-market vehicles offering some level of autonomy will become commonover the next two decades. During his time as secretary of transportation, Foxx and his team anticipated a transition period with a mix of machine-directed and human-directed vehicles sharing the road.
The US Department of Transportation’s (USDOT) National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA) established standard levels of autonomy, ranging from Level 0, defined as all aspects of driving tasks being completely controlled by a human; to Level 5, defined as a totally machine-driven car. “If an individual is in a Level 3 car and there are certain functions that the car can do on its own, how do you teach the human being to be ready when the car needs to assign the task back over to a human being?” Foxx says. “How does that interplay work? I think that’s going to be a huge area. And we’re still learning.”
One promising option lies in the way autonomous vehicles will communicatewith other vehicles, bicycles, infrastructure, and pedestrians. While these autonomous technologies indicate a future with fewer crashes on the road, human nonverbal driving cues need to be considered, especially as these vehicles deploy alongside manually driven cars. For example, when another driver waves at you, she might be signaling for you to go ahead. When entering an intersection on a bike, you may make eye contact with drivers to make sure they see you before proceeding. But if you encounter an autonomous vehicle, how do you know that it has “seen” you and given you the nod to proceed?