Driverless Cars: Putting the Autonomous Cart Before the Horse?

Take a look at the logos below.   These are the 33 different entities that are working on building driverless cars, according to the CB insights research groups.


Right now the leader of the pack is Tesla, which has sold about 70,000 cars capable of using autopilot and has plans to produce about 500,000 cars, all with auto-pilot by 2018.

Ready or not, here comes the age of the driverless car.  It is a textbook example of a technology hitting the street  (literally) before the regulations, legal questions, insurance coverage and infrastructure have had a chance to catch up.

This past summer Tesla made williston-f3.jpg
history when one of its cars became the first autonomous car to be involved in fatal accident. The NTSB is still investigating the accident but its preliminary report says the car was going 74 mph on a highway posted for 65 mph.

The Department of Transportation has issued a Federal Automated Vehicles Policy that is more of a roadmap for the steps that agencies need to take in order to regulate vehicle development.  As the Secretary of Transportation has said, Let’s not replace human-caused crashes with computer-caused crashes…“autonomous vehicles are coming,” whether the world is “ready or not.”

So it seems a little surprising that the Liberty Mutual Research Institute For Safety, which is funded by Liberty Mutual Insurance and has done outstanding research on vehicle accidents, has taken a very welcoming view of the future of autonomous cars.  In fact a new analysis report from the institute says on its first page, “Whether it takes 20, 40 or 100 years to achieve full automation, automated vehicles have the potential to make roadways safer.”

Faced with so many questions and concerns that the car makers may be moving faster than law enforcement and the public are ready, why would one of the most respected safety research groups be so optimistic?  The answer seems be that humans are so bad behind the wheel that robots can only be an improvement.   The head of the institute makes the point that “driver error is a contributing factor in 70-90 percent of all road vehicle crashes.”

Put another way, an american dies in a crash every 15 minutes.  Vehicle accidents are a major reason that workplace fatalities have stopped falling and started rising.  The institute is saying that no driver may be safer than the drivers that are out there right now.

In fact, the articles point out that, in addition to our concerns over the technology and its potential for failure, we need to carefully study how people will react with the technology.  Human factors are about more than just errors.  They are about how humans interact and adapt to technology through design, engineering, and execution.  Aviation went through similar considerations as autopilot systems were introduced to airplanes.  In this case, the automakers are not likely to slow down their development.  It may be up to the rest of us to catch up.

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