When our cars drive themselves
A host of questions circle ’round the pending implementation of autonomous vehicles
They’re zippy, compact. They look like ‘Little People’ conveyances and run at about 25 mph. For the past few years autonomous vehicles have been cruising in test-mode throughout California and Nevada without accident or incident. Companies like Google, BMW and Audi are all in on the fun.
You might feel conflicted about this next wave of “smart” technology. That’s because there’s a lot to consider.
In an interview with caranddriver.com, Google Cars’ self-driving car Director Chris Urmson told reporters: “If you’re really a passionate driver, this is not for you. But, probably, nor is a horse. But for many people, vehicles are really a conveyance that’s more about the A and the B and the necessity to get between the two … We see people not enjoying the feel of the leather steering wheel and hearing the engine. They pull out their cell phone or are eating their lunch. None of that is the pure driving experience. And so for those people, the ability to get between one place and another and use that time effectively and do it safely really is a pretty big deal.”
He makes a good point. How many of us are behind the wheel doing other things. How many of us today just want to get somewhere?
The good news is, these vehicles have become surprisingly safe and efficient. Though a few questions linger: Will they ‘work’ in snow? What would they do in unexpected conditions like a hurricane? And not least, what will such vehicles mean from a traffic enforcement perspective?
The California test cars currently use redundant controls—drive-by-wire steering, brakes and throttle. But after companies like Google are 100 percent confident in their vehicles’ safety those features will be removed.
In June California Department of Motor Vehicles agreed to share data on self-driving car accidents and the results were promising: of the six reports collected there were no injuries to speak of in any collision and the other driver was found to be at fault in every case. (Five of the reports were tied to Google, and the sixth to Delphi).
At a recent Law Enforcement Information Management (LEIM) conference in San Diego, Cpt. Kevin Davis with Calif. Hwy Patrol pointed out, now’s the time that “law enforcement needs to be at the table asking questions”. So the conversations are in motion. Fran Clader, Director of Communications at California Highway Patrol (CHP) says the DMV is currently working on the operational regulations which would allow the public to drive vehicles with autonomous technology. CHP is working with the DMV and other stakeholder groups to look at existing laws and policies, and how they might be applicable to the new breed of wheels.
Clader says “Some top concerns from a law enforcement standpoint are: ‘Will the vehicle be programmed to follow the letter of the law? Can officers readily identify if a vehicle is being operated in autonomous mode versus under driver control? What activities can the driver use in autonomous mode (cell phones, computers, movie players)? Can the vehicle be operated by those persons who wouldn’t normal driver a car (unaccompanied minors, disabled persons, intoxicated persons)’?”
Also, if the vehicle is being operated in autonomous mode and a traffic violation occurs, who is responsible?
Would you be comfortable as a hands-off driver?
Colin Kagel, an autonomous car expert and brand manager for NOPTIC, a company which sells spotlight-mounted thermal camera, says he believes he would feel perfectly comfortable in a vehicle that is not prone to human error. “In the long-run autonomous cars won’t be prone to fits of road rage or the myriad problems that come from distracted driving … Even as an automotive enthusiast who enjoys driving for fun I could definitely see myself feeling comfortable driving in [one of these].”
Kagel’s parent company, Autoliv, makes automotive safety systems. He says in the near future, a car equipped with features like radar (to monitor blind spots and warn other cars when changing lanes), car-mounted night vision cams (to see further than your headlights, alert drivers to pedestrians or animals, and see through smoke and fog) will make autonomous driving extra safe.
“It takes a combination of consumer demand and federal regulation to drive more automotive manufactures to offer these lifesaving technologies, especially when it comes to lower cost cars. It will take time for older cars to get off the roads and for many years there will be a mix of fully autonomous, semi-autonomous and driver dependent vehicles all trying to exist on the same roadways,” he says.
“It may sound scary at first, but as we all become exposed to more active safety technology the transition will seem natural.”
Could it put cops out of work?
According to Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) survey, a 2011 study showed more than half of all contacts with police are related to vehicles (think: speeding, driver complaints, illegal turns, running stop signs…). If self-driving cars are programmed to obey all the rules, where does that put state patrol? Maybe hiring would go down. But so would officer deaths. Think too, about how many times a criminal was apprehended after having their stats run during a common traffic stop. Furthermore, the FBI recently warned “Within a few years, the cars could allow getaway vehicles to speed away from a crime scene while criminals conduct previously impossible tasks that require the use of both hands and taking one’s eyes off the road.”
So you see, it’s possibly a mixed bag. Time will tell whether this next generation of “horseless carriage” will gallop to great heights or grease the way for suspect activity … or maybe accomplish a little bit of both.