The film Demolition Man, starring Sylvester Stallone is set in 2032 and features vehicles that can be self-driven or commanded to “Auto-Mode” in which a voice controlled computer drives the car. The movie Minority Report is set in 2054 in Washington , D.C. and has an extended chase scene with autonomous cars. Are these stories just fantasy, or are we looking at a prophecy similar to George Orwell’s, book 1984? His ideas of big brother and censorship seemed so futuristic when it was published in 1949, yet here we are in an age when technology is so integrated into our society we hardly notice it any more. The idea of autonomous cars is hard to wrap you mind around. It looks great on film, but what does the reality of this technology mean to our future?
The words autonomous and automatic are often used interchangeably in describing new vehicle technology, but the fact is they are very different. Autonomous means acting alone or independently and having the power for self-governance. The suggestion is that autonomous control is able to perform under uncertainties in the environment over long periods of time. It also suggests the ability to compensate for any system failures and come up with appropriate solutions. Everything that has so far been built and tested doesn’t have this kind of capacity, and would more correctly be termed automatic. Automatic systems are somewhat reliant on the outside environment, like magnetic strips for example. Automatic means operated by a machine, while autonomous implies an independence that is self-sufficient. Autonomous technology has levels of advancement to it, such as using connection to the Cloud for communication and getting information from other vehicles. It is a multi-dimensional concept that requires ongoing definition based on real world parameters, not science fiction.
The automotive industry and the public have widely accepted the term autonomous, so for clarification the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) have published a classification system based on six different levels of automation. Instead of being based on the capabilities of the vehicle, it is centered on the amount of driver attentiveness required. The U.S National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) adopted and released these standards in September 2016. The SAE automated vehicle classifications are:
- Level 0: the system has no control over the vehicle but can give warnings and notices.
- Level 1: Includes a driver that is ready to take over the vehicle if necessary. The system includes features like cruise control, parking assistance and lane keeping assistance.
- Level 2: A driver has to detect objects and events and respond if the automated system does not. This system can perform tasks such as acceleration, breaking, and steering, but can be deactivated immediately by the driver.
- Level 3: In this type of vehicle the driver can safely turn their attention away from driving tasks if the vehicle is in a known and limited environment, like freeways.
- Level 4: The system can control the vehicle in all situations except a few, such as severe weather. The driver enables the system if it is safe to do so, and then no attention to driving is required.
- Level 5: No human intervention is needed other than starting the system and setting the destination. The vehicles automated system can go anywhere it is legal to drive.
In light of those classifications, an autonomous car can sense the environment and navigate without human input, or even without a passenger in the car. Realistically, we are probably around the 3rd level, with a few trials performed on level 4. The most obvious advantage to having autonomous cars is the potential to drastically reduce accidents caused by driver error. Delayed reaction time, tailgating, rubbernecking and distracted or aggressive driving could be eliminated. Other possible advantages include improved traffic flow, less highway congestion, and the ability for the elderly, the disabled, and the young, to get around easily and safely. Then there’s a whole list of possible outcomes that could radically change the way we live. Imagine parking lots and spaces being converted to housing and public areas, no traffic lights or sidewalks, and cars being like an extension of your home, basically, a room on wheels.
Sounds a bit like a science fiction novel. At this point, there are a lot more obstacles and disadvantages than there are advantages. The infrastructure we have now is not sufficient to sustain this kind of technological advance, and would require many changes in vital areas to be successful. There are huge concerns about liability, ethical problems and software reliability. There is the potential loss of privacy and risk of hacking. Self-driving cars could possibly be taken over by terrorists and loaded with explosives and programmed to go anywhere. The liability questions would cause major changes in car insurance, as policies would have to redefine the responsible parties as well as determine new safety standards. There would be resistance from professional drivers in mass transport and public transportation, as their jobs would become obsolete. Race car driving is an obsession for some people, with thousands of fans and sponsors. Not so sure they would be willing to give race winning credit to a robot.
There would also need to be an implementation of legal framework and government regulations that could take years to develop. As of now, 7 states have enacted laws for autonomous vehicles. These laws have already been revised and globally discussed in reaction to a fatal accident by Tesla’s Autopilot system. In May of 2016, the driver of Tesla Model S electric car was killed in a crash with and 18-wheel tractor-trailer. The crash happened when the tractor-trailer made a left turn in front of the Tesla at an intersection and the car failed to apply the brakes. Neither the autopilot nor the driver identified the white side of the trailer against the bright sky, and the car went full speed under the trailer and kept going another quarter of a mile and snapped a telephone pole. The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board opened a formal investigation on the accident, and right now, they are the only investigative body that has the power to make policy recommendations.
In 2011 Nevada was the first jurisdiction in the world to pass a law authorizing the use of autonomous cars on public roads. Who, you may be wondering, did they get to monitor, enforce and set the standards for these vehicles? The Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles. Right, enough said.
It is too soon to tell if society is ready for an autonomous reality or if it will be an improvement or not. Look for more blogs on this subject as new information becomes available.