10 June 2012

The road ahead: self-driving cars

One of the things that excites me most about the future of technology is the recent development in self-driving cars. Not only do I find the idea of being driven with no effort to wherever I like attractive, I believe computers will also be able to dramatically reduce the unnecessary loss of life caused by our vehicles every day. But, like with any new technology, there will be challenges with self-driving cars becoming more commonplace on our roads. The challenges I see with getting this technology to the mass market are both cultural and regulatory.

The first cultural stumbling block will be that appealing aspect of cars as portrayed by car advertisements: the sense of freedom and empowerment felt by the driver. The ability to move fast and unimpeded to wherever you fancy has spawned a worldwide culture of driving: from wedding cars to Winnebagos, we love to drive to wherever we’re going.

Will being driven around by our cars mean we lose this freedom? I don’t think it should. The machines will be able to take care of the boring bits, and humans can continue to do the fun stuff. With driving, the vast majority of it is the boring bits (contrary to what the car ads say). The computer will be able to take care of getting you from your home to your holiday destination, while you plan what you’re going to be doing with your time away. Once you get there, you can drive the car around the scenic coastal road if you like, just handing over to the computer when you want to sit back and enjoy the view.

The second cultural barrier will be the difficulty in believing that a machine could be a better driver than a human. Everyone knows someone who is a bad driver and “shouldn’t be on the road”, but rare is the person who would themselves admit to being a bad driver. You see, it’s everyone else’s bad driving that causes all the accidents. This over-inflation of one’s own abilities will apply equally to computer-based self-driving cars when they appear. Why would you let the computer drive, when you can do it fast, better or more fuel-efficiently?

Computers may well prove to be slow, cautious and fuel-inefficient drivers when they first take the wheel. But over time, computers will improve in all these areas while their human counterparts remain impaired by their sluggish nervous system, their susceptibility to tiredness or alcohol, and how easily they are distracted. As the computer systems in self-driving cars continue to improve, it will become increasingly hard to argue that a human behind the wheel is better than the computer in any significant way.

The other cultural problem I see relates to the inevitable accidents that will come with the initial rollout of self-driving cars. These cars will not be free from problems, and the first few major incidents involving loss of life will certainly be highly publicised. This situation will be difficult for everyone to deal with, and policymakers will need to take a long-term view and support the development of this technology which promises a huge increase in safety for everyone.

Legal issues around self-driving cars will be complicated and will need some effort from policymakers in order to help the technology develop while ensuring the safety of the public.

One things to note with the development of self-driving cars is that it’s essential to test out these cars on the public roads. Certainly there is a lot that can be done on a test track, but for ensuring the software can deal with the wide variety of situations that crop up on a real road, the computer will need to drive on our streets while a human monitors it and can take over if necessary.

Setting up a legal framework for on-road testing is the first step where lawmakers can help out. Computers which will be in control of a vehicle on public roads should have gone through a minimum level of testing — a “computer driving test” in other words. The organisations involved with the development of self-driving cars should be able to help set the parameters of such a driving test. Recognition of other vehicles and unexpected obstacles is important, as is obedience to road rules and traffic signals. All this should be tested and assured in a safe test environment before computers are allowed to drive vehicles on the road.

Nevada is the first government in the world to take some steps in this direction, passing legislation last year that allowed the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles (NDMV) to issue licenses for autonomous vehicles once they pass an appropriate level of testing. The first license was granted last month to a self-driving car developed by Google.

While self-driving cars are in their infancy, there will be many situations that the computers are unable to handle. In these circumstances, a human must be able to take over. Ensuring all manufacturers conform to similar standards with their human override controls is another place where regulation will be important. A self-driving car should require a similar level of overrides to those provided by cruise control in current vehicles. A human touching the steering wheel or pressing any of the pedals should take immediately control away from the computer.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the law will need to help determine responsibility for failures in the technology of self-driving cars. Like auto-pilot on planes, the software and hardware which is driving cars on our road will be responsible for ensuring the safety of millions of people every day. The people who write this software and hardware need to have an appropriate level of liability for accidents due to their mistakes or negligence. Determining what is within the bounds of reasonable care for this kind of system will take some discussion, both inside and outside the legal system, as self-driving cars evolve and come into mainstream use.

As the technical limitations are slowly overcome, self-driving cars look like they’ll be a large part of our lives by the end of this decade. Given our history of using such developments to our advantage, I’m optimistic about what such a future will bring. The cultural and legal hurdles to widespread deployment of this technology seems like they can be overcome given sufficient time and effort. The benefits should make all this more than worthwhile.

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