Shelley, an autonomous Audi, at Stanford’s Volkswagen Automotive Innovation Lab. (Photo: Toni Bird)

The Dangers of (Self-)Driving Cars

Stanford researchers zero in on the safety challenges of autonomous vehicles.

By Melinda Sacks

Driverless vehicles are expected to greatly decrease traffic fatalities, but they will sometimes have to decide between bad options. Would your car swerve to miss a cyclist at the risk of hitting another vehicle head-on? Would it protect its own occupant at a greater risk to others?

Not surprisingly, respondents to a series of 2016 surveys reported in the journal Science said that — in concept — they believe autonomous cars should sacrifice their passengers’ well-being for the greater good, but they personally would not ride in or buy such a vehicle.

Jason Millar, a postdoctoral research fellow in engineering and ethics, is one of a dozen scientists and researchers from across Stanford tackling some of the prickliest questions keeping automakers up at night.

“It is one thing to say that a machine is working better than the average human,” Millar says, “but that is based on what it means to be better. The set of criteria you use is negotiable. It can be contentious. That is where some of the interesting ethical questions arise.”

Millar wants to equip engineers to make some of the most important decisions about safety in the design room. He predicts that engineering ethics will become an important new field. “We need to get engineers solving these problems who are attuned to human ethics and human knowledge,” he says.

Mykel Kochenderfer, ’02, MS ’03, an assistant professor of aeronautics and astronautics, has brought his experience with aircraft automation to the autonomous driving discussion. As director of the Stanford Intelligent Systems Laboratory, he develops advanced algorithms and analytical methods for use in air traffic control, unmanned aircraft and other applications in which decisions must be made in uncertain, dynamic environments while maintaining safety and efficiency.

‘We need to get engineers solving these problems who are attuned to human ethics and human knowledge.’

Kochenderfer notes that, in the near term, bringing autonomous transportation to places outside the Bay Area — which benefits from “pristine” weather and a culture of innovation — will be a challenge. On a recent trip to Boston, he found himself at an intersection that took all his cognitive abilities to figure out how to navigate safely. In that moment, he could not imagine a driverless car being able to handle it.

“A lot of what we bring to autonomous vehicles comes from aircraft avoidance systems,” he explains. “In that context, you can be really, really safe if you maneuver when you see another aircraft.” But on the road, the proximity of other vehicles is a given. For example, on a two-lane road, an approaching truck can plow into a car in less than a second.

“You have to reason about the likelihood that they will invade your lane,” he says. “There is nothing you can really do about it other than [not] leave your driveway.”

Regulators — another key part of the safety puzzle — also have a ways to go in adapting laws and policy to autonomous driving. As of late March, 32 states had passed legislation or issued executive orders related to autonomous vehicles, according to the National Conference of State Legislators. While many of these laws have eased the deployment of self-driving vehicles, legislatures have yet to resolve how they will handle fundamental issues such as liability, insurance and safety inspections. Industry observers describe “a Wild West,” where adequate safety protections for consumers are not yet in place and where regulatory purview over the industry has yet to be determined. (A 2017 House bill seeking to consolidate power under the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has yet to go before the full Senate, which is considering its own version of the proposed legislation.)

Source: McKinsey & Co.

On the one hand, self-driving cars could democratize transportation, making independent travel possible for many who lack it, including people who are blind, disabled, young, old or poor. Prognosticators also expect reductions in pollution, traffic, collisions and the cost of getting around, and an increase in green space as the demand for parking lots declines. But skeptics worry that the adoption of driverless cars will eliminate too many jobs and give hackers a new way to attack, even possibly turning cars into lethal weapons.

As the debate about the deployment of autonomous vehicles unfolds, self-driving cars are hitting the road in droves. Ready or not, say experts, here they come. •


Melinda Sacks, ’74, is a senior writer at STANFORD.