In the drive towards self-driving cars … How do we get there from here?

car crash in semi-rural marylandA few weeks ago, I was driving to work on the main two-lane state highway here in our semi-rural corner of Maryland.  It was the Friday before Labor Day weekend, so traffic was lighter than usual.  It was also a clear day, with no wet roads or fog.

In other words, a perfect day for driving.

All of a sudden, an oncoming car drifted into our lane.  In fact, it appeared as if it was purposefully targeting the vehicle about four or five car lengths in front of me.

In the inevitable collision that occurred (thankfully not completely head-on but sickening enough at 55 mph), there were injuries and ambulances … a closed road for 90 minutes … statements to the police required of myself and others … and two wrecks to be towed.

The cause of this accident had to be a case of distracted driving – perhaps reaching for a smartphone, checking a text message or some other action that took eyes off the road just long enough to cause a serious accident.

self-driving carsIt got me to thinking about recent news reports touting “self-driving” cars of the future.

Certainly in a case like this accident, self-driving features like nudging the vehicle back into the correct lane could have easily prevented this accident from ever occurring.

Self-driving vehicles seem like a very nice idea in theory, and in practice they’re not very far off — at least if the news reports are to be believed.

Nissan, Volvo, Daimler-Benz and other leading car companies are predicting that commercial models will be a common sight on the road by about 2020 … and by about 2035, a majority of cars operating will have this technology.

But in order to get there from where we are now, we’re going to have to deal with numerous challenges.  Here are a few that seem particularly nettlesome:

  • Will operators of self-driving cars require a different kind of vehicle training?
  • How will highways accommodate vehicles with and without drivers?
  • Will self-driving cars perform equally well in different road environments – ordinary roads in addition to super-highways?
  • Insurers will need to figure out who is at fault if a self-driving car crashes – the car or the driver?
  • How will automotive manufacturers ensure that cars’ onboard computers can’t be hacked?

And here’s another technology challenge:  What sort of back-end servers will be required to process the huge amounts of vehicular data … as well as secure ways for cars to communicate in real-time with the cloud and other vehicles?  (Daimler has reported that its self-driving test vehicle produces 300 gigabytes of data every hour from its stereo camera alone.)

And lest you become really anxious, don’t think very hard about the kind of data that’s being captured, chronicled and saved on each and every self-driving car’s trip – including  “where it’s been when” and “how fast it got there.”

I also wonder about the transition period when there will be a mix of self-driving cars and traditional vehicles sharing the road.

If self-driving cars “react” to other vehicles so easily, won’t it be really tempting for driver-operated vehicles to make end-runs around self-driving cars or otherwise cut them off, knowing that those cars are programmed to move out of the way to prevent a collision?

Roy Goudy, a senior engineer at Nissan, has commented that since “autonomous” cars can react more quickly to potential hazards than can cars driven by people, it will be difficult to have both on the road at the same time.

“What are the rules in that environment, and what do we do to enforce those rules?” Goudy asks.

I think the future of driving is a very intriguing subject.  Self-driving vehicles could mean far fewer traffic-related injuries and deaths … and it could bring more mobility and independence to disabled people and the elderly.

We just need to figure out a way to get there.

6 thoughts on “In the drive towards self-driving cars … How do we get there from here?

  1. As transformative as this could be for the auto industry and, as you say, for the “disabled and elderly,” just think what it could do for the restaurant business. People could drink a whole bottle of wine with dinner—not just one glass. (assuming of course they could still find the “auto pilot” button when they got back to the car). It could be a game-changer!

    But what a temptation for little 13-year-old Johnny who wants to sneak out and go partying with his buddies.

    Seriously, it’s interesting to think about. We could in effect bring back train travel without having to build new tracks—you just get in line on the interstate, press a magic button, and watch the scenery go by. “Next stop: Ashtabula — ALL ABOARD!”

  2. All of this is indeed very intriguing, but my guess is that self-driving technology will take root first in commercial vehicle operations — truck and bus fleets, and maybe taxi fleets.

    Why? Here are four compelling reasons I can think of:

    1. Commercial fleets are much more standardized, making it easier and more practical to implement the technology.

    2. The volumes of data gathered by self-driving vehicles would likely prove more valuable to commercial operators (e.g. for real-time vehicle and payload tracking, reduction of fuel consumption, predictive maintenance and network analysis) than for owners of personal cars. Most commercial operators already gather much of this information already; self-driving technology would make data collection easier and cheaper.

    3. The great majority of vehicle accidents are caused by human error. Commercial fleet operators are by no means immune (think: sleepy truck and bus drivers) and in most cases face potentially larger liability risks. Self-driving technology gives them new opportunities for managing and mitigating these risks.

    4. With commercial fleets, there are relatively fewer drivers to train and the training regimes are more formal and stringent than for ordinary individuals. Integrating self-driving technology into the education, certification and licensing of commercial drivers seems likely to deliver the most “bang per buck.”

    These are just the first four reasons that come to mind; I’m sure there are more …

    • Good points all. In fact, a work colleague at one of our clients (in the transportation logistics business) was citing similar rationale just the other day. Some of the same issues and hurdles apply, of course …

  3. Enjoyed your article. I was thinking how this automation could help or hurt the over-the-road truck transportation industry. I work for a freight brokerage company and this could get complicated.

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