It seems like the only thing increasing at a greater rate than my enthusiasm for driverless cars has been the amount of news coverage on autonomous vehicles. It also appears that the sea change in the automotive industry may be happening sooner than we think.
In fact, there are currently more than 100 automobile manufacturers in China working on building – and eventually exporting – electric and autonomous vehicles. Perhaps auto industry executives should take their own advice, look in the mirror, and realize that objects and ideas are much closer than they appear.
Earlier this month, General Motors’ shares reacted positively to reports indicating that the company is much further along in developing its autonomous driving technology than prevailing expectations across Wall Street would suggest. The company’s fleet of autonomous vehicles test-driving the streets of San Francisco has more than doubled to 100 vehicles. As a result of the this progress, some analysts on Wall Street are forecasting that GM’s driverless cars could be commercially deployed within a few years.
There already are some sophisticated driverless technologies installed in vehicles on roads today. Tesla, for instance, has an “autopilot” driving mode that allows drivers to take their hands off the wheel. However, if drivers are hands-off for too long, their car will prompt them to touch the wheel to ensure they are still paying attention. This is somewhat akin to moving a computer mouse every few minutes to prevent the screen saver from coming on.
Remarkably, some of the most exciting research and development on autonomous vehicle technology is happening in our own backyard at the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), a nonprofit, independent contract research organization. Serving as a trustee for SwRI has provided me with great insight into the amazing technology solutions the institute creates to solve complex, real-world problems. In the summer edition of the its Technology Today publication, Steve Dellenback, vice president of SwRI’s Intelligent Systems Division, answered questions on some of the major roadblocks that complicate the adoption of driverless cars.
One hindrance Dellenback spoke of is the ethical dilemma created by the introduction of autonomous vehicles. Drivers make countless decisions on the road, many of which are instantaneous judgments.
When drivers are confronted with an object in the road impeding their ability to continue in their lane, they instinctually assess which lane to switch to as they take action to limit damage and maximize safety. Autonomous vehicles will make these same decisions, moving to avoid collisions and monitoring the road for potential danger.
However, some collisions and accidents are simply unavoidable, and drivers must instantly decide where and how to respond. How do we expect autonomous vehicles to make these decisions when it comes down to either colliding with the vehicle in front of us after its driver slammed on the brakes or swerving to collide with the vehicle beside us?
Drivers’ circumstances and environment influence their driving style, Dellenback said. If drivers are in a rush and it is late at night with few cars on the road, some may choose to drive a little faster than they should. If there is ice on the road, but they are still in a hurry, some individuals will choose to slow down despite running behind schedule, while others will choose to drive faster still despite the increased risk of causing an accident.
The technology in autonomous vehicles will have to somehow make these decisions on drivers’ behalves. But these decisions are not black and white – They depend on personal values and circumstances. Drivers all have their own values and ethical frameworks that inform their driving styles and the decisions they make while behind the wheel. Will each driverless car be able to adopt preferred driving preferences?
I have my doubts. I think it is more likely that autonomous vehicles’ driving styles will be standardized, which will be good for us all, in my opinion.
Distracted drivers are one of the leading causes of auto fatalities, and texting while driving can be lethal. With a fully autonomous fleet of automobiles on the road, the number of deaths and injuries should decline dramatically. Yet for this utopian idea to become a reality, drivers will have to hand over their keys, their trust, and some degree of personal liberty to a machine.
Driverless vehicles will see drivers surrendering their right to drive as fast and reckless as they would like or as slow and cautious as they see fit. Perhaps the accelerating adoption of rideshare apps is helping drivers get comfortable with this idea. By utilizing companies such as Uber and Lyft, riders implicitly abdicate their driving preferences for the driver’s, all while trusting that that driver will get them to their destination safely and on time.
While there is a great deal of optimism surrounding the coming introduction of autonomous vehicles, there are clearly important ethical variables that have yet to be adequately considered. But I anticipate these issues will prove to be just another road block we can easily avoid.