What’s putting the brakes on driverless cars?

We’ve seen so much hype about driverless cars anyone would think they were on the verge of taking over the world, but there are many reasons why fully autonomous vehicles will take much longer to reach mass adoption than tech giants  like Google would have us believe.

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Here are some of the challenges they are facing…

Ethical issues

Driverless cars will be programmed to avoid collisions, especially with human beings. However suppose a mother pushing a buggy steps out into the road suddenly and the car does not have enough time to stop. Does the car swerve into the path of oncoming traffic, potentially threatening the lives of its own passengers and the lives of others? Would it make a different decision if a cat ran out in front? Who will be responsible for programming such decisions into the car? And what if you don’t agree with the default ethical algorithm – should you have the right to override the default settings?

There are doubts over whether the technology will ever become sophisticated enough to handle such decisions.

Who’s to blame?

While law-abiding driverless cars, with all their cameras, sensors, radars and faster-than-human reaction times, could undoubtedly help reduce accidents (90% of which currently caused by driver error), noone is foolish enough to believe that they will be flawless. They will occasionally crash and perhaps even kill people. So if you own the car, who is liable? You? Or is it the car manufacturer? Is it the maker of the specific piece of equipment that failed or the software company?

“There are some practical and legal issues that need to be addressed,” says Ben Howarth, Association of British Insurers, “particularly about where ultimate responsibility for an autonomous vehicle will rest.”

Stephan Appt, law firm Pinsent Masons says: “The key issue is to find a means to enable car drivers to establish that it was not them, or at least not a technical defect of their car when a crash occurs. “There will be a need for event data recorders – like aeroplane black boxes – to be built into the cars. This, however, raises privacy concerns. Who shall own the data in the data recorder and who shall have the right to claim access to it?”

Sorting all this out will take years and lots of legal wrangling, not to mention new regulations at national and international level.

The technology isn’t good enough yet

Many semi-autonomous technologies are already available in today’s cars, from emergency braking to cruise control, self parking to lane keeping. This year, Ford are planning to introduce automatic speed recognition technology and Daimler are hoping to test self-driving lorries on German motorways. This is a far cry from full autonomy.

Andy Whydell, TRW global engineering company specialising in driver safety equipment, says radars have a range of about 200-300m (218-328 yards) but struggle with distances greater than this. As a result, “sensors may not have sufficient range to react fast enough at high speed when something happens ahead,” he says. “Work is going on to develop sensors that can see ahead 400m.”

Lasers and cameras are also less effective in rainy, foggy or snowy conditions, he says, which potentially makes them unreliable in much of the northern hemisphere. Even Google has admitted that its prototype driverless car struggles to spot potholes or has yet to be tested in snow.

How would a driverless car cope trying to exit a T-junction at rush hour if human-driven cars don’t let it out?

Standardisation

Driverless cars may need to communicate directly with each other using systems similar to aeroplane transponders – transmitting location, speed and direction to other vehicles. How will the industry be able to agree a technological standard for this vehicle-to-vehicle communication?

It has become apparent standardisation will be a big challenge for driverless cars. Data analytics will have to be shared across the industry. This implies open source software in cars but this software is how original equipment manufacturers demonstarte their knowhow. In other words, collaboration in a highly competitive market will be difficult, to say the least.

Security risks

Cars will become increasingly connected to the internet and mobile networks, enabling live streaming of traffic data, music, and social media updates. Perhaps car-to-car communication will become standard, too. But connectivity presents security issues. Researchers have demonstarted they are able to take remote control of vehicles by hacking into its inernet connectes entertainment and navigation system through a mobile phone network! It has also been discovered that weaknesses in some car infotainment systems could allow hackers to seize control of a vehicle’s steering or brakes.

Do we even want them?

The global success of BBC’s Top Gear is just one indication of just how much the population love cars and driving. Rightly or wrongly, many of us love the thrill of speed and the sense of freedom cars give us. Being in control is an important aspect of that. In the driverless world we become passive and disengaged; the car is reduced to a commodity, a mere tool for mobility. Where’s the fun in that?

chris

While driverless cars could offer valuable mobility to the elderly and people with varying degrees of disability, most experts believe such vehicles will be restricted to urban settings on prescribed routes only.

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