The Fuse

Puncturing Misconceptions about Driverless Cars

by Matt Piotrowski | March 25, 2016

There is growing excitement around driverless vehicles with automotive and tech companies pouring money into the new technology. What was once seen as impossibly “futuristic” is now on the cusp of taking off—autonomous vehicles promise to shatter current limitations on personal mobility while revolutionizing fuel efficiency and enabling a widespread transition to electric vehicles.

Skepticism about driverless cars, as with any new technology, is high. As criticism mounts, so have popular misconceptions.

At the same time, skepticism about driverless cars, as with any new technology, is high. As criticism mounts, so have popular misconceptions. In this piece, The Fuse examines common misunderstandings that have already formed about self-driving vehicles.

  • Driverless cars are unsafe because a passenger must be alert and skillful to take over at any time.

Before any discussion of vehicle safety begins, it’s important to note that some 38,000 people die each year from traffic accidents, and this number should stay high given that drivers are becoming more and more distracted because of the gadgets they use while driving, mostly cell phones. Autonomous cars will drastically cut down on the number of deaths. However, nothing is 100 percent completely safe in life, and the same will hold true for self-driving cars. Still, given that drivers contribute to some 94 percent of accidents, autonomous cars will bring about a drastic improvement in this regard.

Whether a passenger needs to be alert and able to take over and drive at any point in the ride depends on the level of autonomy for the car.

Whether a passenger needs to be alert and able to take over and drive at any point in the ride depends on the level of autonomy for the car. As of now, there are four levels of automation. In levels two and three, which don’t allow for full cognitive disengagement, the driver can gain control of safety functions under certain traffic conditions. “For semi-autonomous vehicles, it’s really a question of how successfully a driver can disengage and then safely take over when necessary,” said Avery Ash, Director of Federal Relations with AAA. “It’s a key consideration that has not been fully addressed, but the safety gains in autonomy make it worth getting right.”

Level 4 vehicles, meanwhile, will be completely autonomous and will not expect or require any human input. When Level 4 autonomous vehicles are deployed, passengers do not need to be cognitively engaged, nixing any chance of human error. Meanwhile, the development of “connected” vehicles using V2V technology, which is still in its infancy, will go a long way toward reducing error and boosting safety. This technology would allow vehicles to communicate with each other and through microwave transmission, making autonomous cars even less vulnerable to accidents and possible error.

  • Vehicles will be vulnerable to cyberattacks and widespread hacking.

Simply having autonomous capability does not make a vehicle vulnerable to hacking. With more traditional cars having built-in WiFi and many functions now being controlled by a computer, car security is becoming a greater issue. Researchers have broken in to systems and exposed potential dangers, prompting automakers to recall units and improve their software. The most prominent example is last year hackers exposing the wireless network of the Jeep Cherokee and shutting down the car’s engine while on the highway. The fact that automakers corrected the problems they faced should be a sign of reassurance. Moreover, it showed how the issue stems more so from the network and not the actual vehicle. Hacking and cybersecurity are already issues today and the issue is urgent even without driverless cars.

The biggest concern will arise with connected cars. Odds of initial exposure to outsiders will likely jump. But again, most vehicles today are already equipped with a sophisticated telecommunications network. Researchers and automakers will learn from current experiences to buffer future vehicles from outside hacking.

  • The public won’t embrace self-driving cars because Americans like to own vehicles and they don’t want to be at the mercy of a computer.

There may be partial truth to this idea, but it won’t reverse the broader trend toward autonomy. Many drivers are likely to still want vehicle ownership since they enjoy the experience of driving, while others will never fully feel comfortable not being in control of their car. In fact, they may find the idea terrifying. For these motorists, autonomous cars won’t matter: Driving is not likely to be banned once autonomous cars become mainstream. At the same time, though, in urban environments, ride-sharing services have taken off and vehicle ownership is more of a nuisance than a high priority. Consumers in these markets will be more open to using self-driving cars on demand to avoid the hassles of parking and maneuvering through busy streets.

“There are consumer concerns and mistrust, but for those who’ve tried it out and used it, the perception flips considerably.”

The public should gain comfort with self-driving vehicles once they become more commonplace and initial fears recede. According to a survey from AAA, some 75 percent of U.S. drivers are “afraid” of riding in autonomous vehicles. But the study also found that drivers who own vehicles with semi-autonomous features are roughly 75 percent more likely to trust the technology than those who do not own it, “suggesting that gradual experience with these advanced features can ease consumer fears.”

“Yes, there are consumer concerns and mistrust, but for those who’ve tried it out and used it, the perception flips considerably,” said Avery Ash of AAA.

Moreover, given that well-established companies with household names are becoming very aggressive in this space, consumers’ minds will ultimately shift. Google began work on autonomous vehicles in 2009, while Uber, Apple and Lyft have also shown growing interest. Traditional automotive companies have also been active. Most have announced autonomous vehicle development activities, although some are more motivated than others.

  • Driverless vehicles will not be able to deal with bad weather, including snowstorms.

There are indeed challenges with regard to how driverless cars will deal with inclement weather. So far, the technology to deal with certain weather conditions, particularly snowstorms, is limited, but companies have started to test new solutions. It’s not the top priority at this moment, however. Companies want to first deploy vehicles in areas without snow and other poor weather conditions. Once that is achieved, they can move onto safety for more challenging scenarios. “The myth is that self-driving cars have to work on any road, at any time, in any conditions and at any speed in order to work,” said Amitai Bin-Nun, Director, Autonomous Vehicle Initiative at Securing America’s Future Energy (SAFE). “Initial deployments of self-driving cars will likely be limited to conditions that the cars can handle well, perhaps by lowering operating speeds or by needing manual operation on roads it is not equipped to handle. In the long term, AVs will mature to be safer than humans in any weather condition and at any speed.”

This issue is less of a concern with semi-autonomous vehicles, since drivers can regain control and maneuver through poor weather conditions, or simply not drive through them in the first place. Which brings up a key point: With models becoming better at predicting weather, it makes it easier to plan ahead and simply not deploy autonomous vehicles in dangerous situations—at least until the right amount of testing has been completed.

  • Cars won’t be able to follow hand signals from policemen.

The issue of whether self-driving cars will be able to understand hand gestures is, similar to dealing with the weather, a legitimate safety concern that has not yet been fully solved. But it will be over time. There’s plenty of time before autonomous cars will have to respond correctly to signals from policemen, or other workers along roads, such as those in construction. Proper solutions to this problem will likely include a coordinated effort from different groups, with companies improving their technology for cars to deal with signals from humans and local governments investing in education efforts and their own technological advances so policemen and other public officials understand how to properly communicate with self-driving vehicles.

Obstacles won’t hinder deployment

Autonomous vehicles, like any new technology, will need to overcome a number of obstacles before they become ubiquitous.

Autonomous vehicles, like any new technology, will need to overcome a number of obstacles before they become ubiquitous. Certainly, the underlying technology needs to become more robust in a broad range of traffic and weather conditions before widespread deployment occurs—but given the stakes, autonomous vehicles will also be subject to some of the most rigorous safety and performance testing of any technology in human history. That level of rigor will be worth it, when autonomous vehicles transform our lives for the better.

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