A questionable fate for autonomous vehicles

Autonomous vehicles are hot news right now

They seem like the natural next progression in technological development. Major companies like Tesla, Uber, and Alphabet (Google) are testing cars and pushing this technology forward at a rapid pace. Uber has already unleashed self driving vehicles on the streets of Pittsburgh carrying passengers. They had Uber drivers in the cockpit ready to take over should the need arise. Uber intends to replace these drivers completely. I say “good luck.”

The government is starting to realize the real possibility of automated vehicles and they are realizing the need for regulation. This regulation could be crippling but rightfully so to an industry that may not be able to prove they can solve the ethical quandaries that may arise for the automated systems in these cars. For example, whether to swerve to avoid a crash if it would cause serious harm to people outside the vehicle.

Christopher Hart, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, is a skeptic. He told the MIT Technology Review that federal regulations will be required to set the basic morals of autonomous vehicles, as well as safety standards for how reliable they must be. “The government is going to have to come into play and say, ‘You need to show me a less than X likelihood of failure, or you need to show me a fail-safe that ensures that this failure won’t kill people,” said Hart. Hart also said the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) will likely require designers of self-driving cars to build in fail-safes for critical components of their vehicles, similar to how aircraft manufacturers do.

This may not be that easy, and may put this technology in the incubator for awhile before and if the bugs can be worked out in the near future. I don’t see the human being being completely removed from the driving process in the near future as other visionaries do. I think this will “stall out” in bureaucracy for a while as the commercial drone market has been impeded by government.

We need some automation in vehicles. How about assisted braking if I don’t have a quick enough response in traffic and sensors that could detect when I am dozing off at the wheel? The car could safely pull me over to the side of the road. Sensors could detect and throttle the gas back when you are speeding to keep you from getting a ticket. We should use augmented reality displays in the windshield to show proper spacing in traffic for the current speed. Alerts could appear to alert the driver to road hazards.

I don’t think drivers are eager to surrender their vehicles just yet. There is a huge underlying cultural love affair in America with the automobile. Even if drivers were eager to hand over the keys, there are huge safety and ethical issues that will make this transition less than easy. The thing with electronics and mechanics, they are prone to failure. If this happens when I’m driving my car, I can compensate, pull over and call a mechanic. If a sensor goes out while I’m navigating through traffic, the repercussions could be fatal. If my sensor fails and doesn’t sense a motorcyclist or pedestrian, that is a human life that is in jeopardy.

Car companies should not rush too quickly into this technology because if they release it too soon and someone gets hurt, then the technology is compromised and will be slow to be adopted or will never even get off the ground. My advice, take your time car companies. We’ve made do with driving ourselves for a long time now. Conduct lots of R&D and perfect the technology, if possible. Make it fail safe and reliable. I look forward to a future with autonomous cars, but I don’t think we’re ready for it yet. Lets work on driver-assist and enabling the driver to have more tools at his/her discretion to get to and from a destination safely.

-By Michael Rutledge

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