Is the world ready for driverless cars? Are driverless cars ready for the world? – Los Angeles Times

Posted: Saturday, May 07, 2016

Here’s a quiz you can take at home: 

When will driverless cars become common on America’s highways?

A. They’re already here!

B. Ten to 20 years from now.

C. In 225 years.

It’s a trick question. Each answer is correct, depending on how you define driverless technologies and the rules and regulations needed to oversee them. Intelligent cruise control and self-parking systems are common on new cars today. For Eric Schmidt, the chairman of Alphabet (the parent company of Google), even more advanced driverless technologies are ready, and hidebound regulators are the only obstacle to their widespread use. 

The technology works because, frankly, the computer can see better than you can, even if you’re not drunk in a car,” Schmidt, whose company’s self-driving vehicles have completed 1.5 million miles of test drives, told a receptive audience Monday at the Milken Institute Global Conference. 

Many automotive and technology experts, however, expect that fully developing the technology and perfecting regulations for two-ton vehicles tooling around our roads without a human at the controls will take a decade or two. And determining to a statistical certainty whether autonomous vehicles are safer will take even longer. 

A recent study by the Rand Corp. calculated that establishing to a statistical near-certainty that driverless cars would reduce vehicular fatalities by even 20% would require 5 billion miles of road testing — a record that would take a fleet of 100 test vehicles operating at an average of 25 miles per hour, 24 hours a day and 365 days a year, 225 years to complete. That’s because Americans drive 3 trillion miles a year and fatalities are relatively rare — the 32,800 deaths annually on U.S. roads amount to only 1.09 per 100 million miles.

It’s unclear whether the public will demand such precise proof of safety before accepting driverless cars on the road, says Nidhi Kalra, the co-author of the Rand report. “Before now, new vehicle technologies have just been allowed to go on the road because the driver is still ultimately in control,” Kalra says. “The public may not be comfortable following the same path for autonomous vehicles.”

As automaking increasingly becomes a high-tech industry, California is turning into the hub of autonomous vehicle research and development. Google’s self-driving car initiative is based near the company’s Mountain View headquarters, with a test range in Merced County. Tesla Motors, another hotbed of autonomous vehicle research, is based in Palo Alto, where the Toyota Research Institute, that automaker’s artificial intelligence and robotics division, also recently established one of its three labs. (The others are in Cambridge, Mass., and Ann Arbor, Mich.)

California’s importance to these efforts became clear in December, when the state transportation agency issued regulations governing the testing of self-driving cars on public roads. Among other requirements, companies must equip their test vehicles with a steering wheel and a licensed and specially-trained operator prepared to take over immediate control, and must put up a $5-million insurance bond. 

The driverless car lobby immediately denounced the regulations as a “ban” on driverless cars. Chris Urmson, the head of Google’s program, groused that requiring a self-driving car “to have a licensed driver at all times … maintains the same old status quo and falls short on allowing this technology to reach its full potential, while excluding those who need to get around but cannot drive.”

In fact, the regulations govern only testing of the cars; operating vehicles without drivers is still illegal on public roadways in California. The rules are aimed at ensuring that test vehicles can safely share the roads with everyone else, says Brian Kelly, head of the transportation agency.

Several workshops and public hearings on the regulations showed the agency that “consumer and safety advocacy groups are very cautious about letting go of things like steering wheels and brakes in cars,” he told me. “We’re not trying to shut down testing, but make sure we can safely bring it along.”

Kelly said that California and other states are hoping that the National Highway Transportation Safety Agency will take the lead in overseeing testing rules by issuing draft regulations later this year.

There’s no question that self-driving cars could bring significant benefits to the traveling public. Proponents point to the role of human error in the vast majority of vehicular accidents — a reminder of the old joke about the most dangerous part of a car is “the nut behind the wheel.” Autonomous vehicles won’t get drunk or distracted reading or writing texts. Efficiently-driven robotic cars could reduce congestion and pollution, and provide mobility to people barred from driving themselves, such as the elderly and the blind.

The promise of new technologies is hinted at by the success of robotic features built into many cars now: adaptive cruise control, which adjusts the car’s speed when it senses traffic or obstructions in its way; lane-departure warnings and emergency braking; and self-parking systems.

Current technologies all require the driver to remain alert and ready to take full control of the car to ensure safety. What of the self-driving technologists’ dream of a car so autonomous that its occupant can read, work or nap while traveling? Huge questions remain about when — or whether — advanced technology will ever render such cars safe in all road conditions, at least as far as the public is concerned. A recent survey by J.D. Power found that mistrust of fully automated cars spans all age groups.

Assertions that robotic technology is ready to outperform human drivers seems wildly premature. The real-world performance of visual technology contradicts Schmidt’s claim that “the computer can see better than you can.” That’s true only in certain conditions.


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