Is the Fully Autonomous Car Just Around the Corner?

The biggest hindrance to widespread adoption of driverless cars are drivers themselves.

Roger Allan, Contributing Editor

We keep hearing announcements from automotive manufacturers and others that a fully autonomous car that conforms to the SAE Level 5 international standard will be on the market by somewhere between 2021 and 2023. Not so fast.

When you think of all the societal, economical, legal, safety, and security issues to be resolved, as well as the public’s reluctance to accept such a scenario, this time frame may very well be premature. More likely, such a vehicle may not be fully on our roads for at least a couple of more decades, according to many automotive and other related experts.

Much of this trepidation about a Level 5 car is because we don’t know how people will react to car accidents and unavoidable risks. When these events are caused by human beings with drivers behind the steering wheels, they’re usually accepted as unfortunate, i.e., “to err is human.” But with a computer-controlled fully autonomous car, their judgments are likely to be harsher, since this is a robotic vehicle that is expected to be precise, and digital machines are expected to be so as well.

Having life and death decisions being made by an AI computer on who in an accident will die and who will live poses ethical and legal issues. AI technology is increasingly making significant performance advances, but has yet to master precisely acceptable results, not without some human input as evidenced by MIT’s moral machine platform and Crowdflower’s AI software. There are also plenty of AI experts who believe that AI systems can never be 100% trusted for driverless smart cars.

Gartner Inc. just published a survey among 1,512 people in the United States that 55% of respondents questioned say they will not ride in a fully autonomous vehicle. It cites that fuller consumer and social acceptance is a key to autonomous vehicle acceptance, and that a greater acceptance will not begin until 2025. It also cites that 71% of U.S. drivers said they may consider riding in a partially automated vehicle.

Other studies have also shown that the acceptance of fully automated driverless vehicles is slightly higher among those in India, China, Japan, and most of Asia. This should not be surprising since this area of the world is much more overcrowded than the U.S. and is more receptive to driverless cars, whose benefits include more ride sharing, fewer traffic jams, and taxi-type services. The same goes for Europe.

And AAA last year said that 75% of U.S. drivers reported feeling “afraid” to ride in a self-driving vehicle (http://newsroom.aaa.com/2016/03/three-quarters-of-americans-afraid-to-ride-in-a-self-driving-vehicle/). In a more recent announcement, AAA showed that many modern features on semi-autonomous driver-assisted smart cars, such as adaptive cruise control, self-parking, automatic emergency braking, and lane departure warning/lane keep assist rank high on 61% of U.S drivers’ wish lists.

Thus far, smart-car driverless auto manufacturers have been able to conduct tests on such vehicles in closed-off and tightly regulated environments that minimize the number of possible errors occurring. Advocates of fully autonomous cars are calling for increasing education of the public about the technology and conduct more demonstrations of such vehicles’ capabilities in larger and more realistic environments.

Another big issue is economic. A fully autonomous car technology may very well create large business income losses to roadside gas stations, hotels, motels, restaurants, and convenience facilities that depend on vehicular traffic. There may also be a ripple effect for the managers and suppliers that keep these roadside outlets running.

Security is a big concern for both auto makers and drivers. Sensing and routing cloud-based data can easily be hacked to the detriment of everyone. Since these are digital satellite-based signals, hack-proof tools must be developed to ensure that nothing can be easily hacked and confidence in this must be very high by everyone.

The Federal Government has begun working with automakers at local, municipal, county, state and federal levels with guidelines for self-driving cars.

It certainly will take more time to change the ingrained habits of many car drivers who simply like to take a weekend drive on our roadways and highways and enjoy the scenery. Let’s think more carefully about the many issues that have to be solved for fully autonomous driverless cars to become common vehicles.

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