Over the coming years, the advanced safety features that are being developed will increasingly be linked into larger systems that will eventually allow cars to drive themselves. The benefits in terms of safety and convenience could be significant. Autonomous vehicles could help reduce crashes caused by human error, ease congestion, extend the driving years of the aging boomer population, and allow those who are visually or physically impaired to have greater mobility. But are we ready for them?
“It’s all about the T word—trust,” says John Hanson, Toyota’s national manager, advanced technology and business communications. “There has to be a level of trust that you have that the vehicle is going to perform the way you think it’s going to perform.”
“Getting a car that can operate with the reliability that today’s cars do is a staggering challenge,” says Bryant Walker Smith, fellow at the center for automotive research at Stamford University. Even if autonomous cars save countless lives, “one headline, ‘Machine Kills a Child,’ trumps 30,000 obituaries,” he adds.
“People shouldn’t think that there will never be an accident,” says Ron Medford, Google’s director of safety for self-driving cars. Autonomous cars will be “much, much better than a human,” he says, but they won’t be perfect.
Volvo is planning a test of 100 autonomous cars on public roads in 2017. Nissan has said it will have an autonomous vehicle in production by 2020. But pinning down a firm date can be difficult. Some automakers such as Mercedes-Benz and Toyota say they can’t give firm dates until the crash-avoidance technologies that are the building blocks of the cars are accepted and trusted, and that they prove they can reduce accidents.
Even then, approval of autonomous vehicles may be challenging in our legal and regulatory climate. One critical issue: Who is ultimately responsible for the driving, the driver or the vehicle? The answer will be developed over time, as will the impact on insurance liability, and it may depend on the situation. An initial concern is how to pass control back and forth between human and machine, and what is the appropriate timing of that transition. Audi says 10 seconds is reasonable, based on its testing, and it will need to guarantee that a driver won’t have to take control in an emergency.
Despite the challenges, using leading-edge technology to replace our current system that “consists of old, poorly maintained vehicles operated by poorly trained, easily distracted, unsupervised individuals has a lot of potential for safety gains,” Smith says.