Drivers optional

By Robert Hickson 27/04/2012

Self-driving cars — such as Google’s (but also real car makers, like BMW, Audi and General Motors) — are still some years away from being available to the common or garden back seat driver. None-the-less Nevada has introduced regulations establishing procedures for their use on public roads, and California is also keen to do so. These seem more for economic rather than public safety reasons, since they hope to attract firms to set up shop and test there.

However, as both The Economist and Technology Review point out, more and more regular cars (not just top-of-the-line ones either) are getting some of the sensors and other features seen in autonomous ones. Self-drive creep, so to speak. It may take about 30 years for collision avoidance and other such systems to be the norm.

The US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is encouraging development of automated systems (such as car to car communication) to enhance safety. A large European research programme, Safer Road Trains for the Environment, is also developing automated driving systems to improve safety and fuel efficiency.

Consideration is also being given in the US to require collision avoidance systems in all new cars in just a few years. While legislators there are already proposing installing black box recorders in vehicles from 2015.

As you’d expect, liabilty issues are a challenge to overcome, particularly in the US. Just look at what happened in response to unexpected acceleration in some Toyota models a few years ago. (There is still debate over whether there were electronic failures or human ones, such as having the wrong floor mats). Honda has also been sued for alleged failure in collision avoidance systems.

As vehicles continue to become more electronic and less mechanical a growing challenge will be to ensure that the different electronic systems communicate with each other (both within and between vehicles) as they become more complex.

However, concern over whether my Android car will be able to ‘talk’ to your iCar may be less of an issue than whether your Ford will even what to attempt to communicate with my Holden.

Greater automation also raises the issue of moral hazard. Drivers may take greater risks if they have electronic backup. Will we need a different driver licensing system?  Someone who has only learned to “drive” a semi- or fully autonomous vehicle is unlkely to have the skills to drive what we now consider to be a normal car. (This is going back to the future – if my memory serves me right, back in the day if you sat your driving test with an automatic transmission you weren’t certified to drive a manual car). Will car rental firms in the future charge a premium for non-autonomous vehicle?

One issue with greater driving automation that I haven’t yet seen raised is how autonomous driving will affect urban planning and the use of public transport. If you can read, watch TV, cruise the internet, etc while travelling to work, and driving becomes less stressful, the barriers to living further from work are likely to drop. Just as better roads and cheaper vehicles last century encouraged longer commutes and urban sprawl.

For some, their most productive work periods may be those travelling to and from the ‘office’. People may also be less likely to use public transport if sitting in your own autonomous vehicle is attractive. So do we want to see more urban sprawl as a cost of safer driving? Will “smarter cities” be undone by smart cars?

Update, 30 April: Technology Review have an item about MIT’s Media Lab designing a system to make sure autonomous vehicles can communicate with pedestrians to let them know it has seen them and they can safely cross the road.