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Autonomous Vehicles: Amazing Potential

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Autonomous Vehicles: Amazing Potential

Bill Crittenden
9 May 2017

Yeah, I know I've written about this before, but that was a long time ago and it's time for an update incorporating new information, new terminology, and new ideas...

Autonomous Vehicles: Autonomy Optional

The idea of roads full of "self-driving cars," or autonomous vehicles, is a bit unsettling to a lot of people. Perhaps a review of their awesome potential as well as their limitations will assuage some fears.

First of all, an autonomous vehicle isn't going to be all that different than the regular automobiles we see today. The original uproar over Google's self-driving car came from the curved plastic bubble that fearmongers said would replace their precious Mustangs and Camaros.

Thankfully that's died down as Uber & Google have turned to testing on conventional Fords, Volvos, and Toyotas. But there are still some misconceptions. First of all, an autonomous vehicle cannot be completely free of driver controls. There still needs to be some way of making the vehicle go in a particular direction and speed when the autonomous system sensors fail due to malfunction or weather, or when the car is being maneuvered around places without clearly marked traffic lanes. For examples of the latter: when pulling it into a service bay at Jiffy Lube without dumping the car into the pit or when parking in the grass at the fair.

So there will still be a steering wheel and pedals. The autonomous vehicle system will be more similar to an airplane's autopilot. Switch on when needed, switch off when it would get in the way. In your own car you can activate it if and when you want. Or you can always leave it off if you're just not comfortable with it.

Human Error and Autonomous Vehicle Crashes

But what if autonomous vehicles get into crashes? It's going to happen. The question here is will they cause as many crashes as human drivers? Of course there will be those who will take every anecdote that comes along, hold it up and say "autonomous vehicles hurt this person, they shouldn't be allowed!" But the autonomous vehicle technology is already showing itself to be safer than human drivers at such an early stage in development:

In fact, a study published in October 2015 found that self-driving cars are more likely to be in an accident. The study, conducted by the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute, found that per million miles traveled, self-driving cars had a higher crash rate than traditional cars. At the time of the study, no self-driving cars had been found at fault for the crashes they were involved in.

(What the First Driverless Car Fatality Means for Self-Driving Tech (LiveScience), emphasis added)

Let me repeat: "At the time of the study, no self-driving cars had been found at fault for the crashes they were involved in." But the study included not only those incidents when other human-driven cars hit autonomous vehicles, but also autonomous vehicles being driven in manual mode, being pretty much controlled exactly as a "normal" car would be, with the accident caused by a human driver.

And how are AV crash rate studies covered by the media? "Study: Self-driving cars have higher accident rate" (USA Today) and "National crash rate for conventional vehicles higher than crash rate of self-driving cars, report shows" (Phys.org) were pretty par for the course, with Bloomberg's "Humans Are Slamming Into Driverless Cars and Exposing a Key Flaw" being slightly better for mentioning the human error involved but also worse for blaming the AV's for the human error. Basically, it's the fault of the autonomous vehicle's programming, which always obeys the law and the speed limit, that causes drivers to hit them when those drivers expect the other cars on the road to break the law as well.

Nope, that's 100% the human driver's fault, and my advice is to simply quote Jim Carrey from Liar Liar: "stop breaking the law, asshole!"

Knowing that 41% of people don't read stories beyond the headlines (Media Insight Project, 2014), you can see how media can give people the impression that autonomous vehicles are death traps for their passengers and dangerous to everybody else on the road.

As with so many things in 2016 & 2017, we'll simply have to wait for the media to stop sensationalizing and fear mongering for clicks and views.

Amazing Potential

So, aside from showing how the data is being misrepresented, I've been thinking of and making note of all the sorts of ways people come up with that autonomous vehicle technology can be used to save lives and make life easier. Here's what I have so far:

  • Preventing accidents from elderly drivers while also ensuring that people too old to drive do not lose their mobility.
  • Preventing drivers falling asleep behind the wheel. Late shift workers or kids driving to & from college can nod off knowing their car will get them around safely without their input. As a night shift worker who occasionally can't sleep during the day or gets stuck for a double shift, this one's personal to me.
  • Medical emergency transportation. Sick or injured enough to need a trip to the Immediate Care facility but not serious enough to require an ambulance? Have a heart attack behind the wheel? While it doesn't exist yet, it would be damned useful if at the press of an emergency button the car drove you to the nearest open care center or emergency room and honked the horn until someone came out to get you.
  • Preventing distracted driving accidents by taking the responsibility of driving away from those busybodies who just can't put their phones down.
  • Preventing DUI accidents by having the car do the driving for drunk people. Alcohol sensors in development now may also prevent the potential drunk driver from thinking they're sober enough to drive and disengaging the autonomous mode.
  • Sightseeing. Instead of trying to keep one eye on the road and still look around, just let the car do the driving and enjoy the scenery.
  • Police officer multitasking. Autonomous mode would allow police officers to take their eyes off the road to type a plate into the computer and read back the results without risking an accident.
  • Extending truck drivers' daily range. Trucks are still going to need drivers for making sure the rig is running properly, for refueling, and for maneuvering around docks. But once it's out on the open road, the driver can let the AV system take over and rest up for the next stop. If regulations recognize this as rest time, truckers can essentially drive in "tandem" with the autonomous system, but with only one driver to pay it could driving down the shipping costs that get passed on to all of us.

  • If you can think of another good use for autonomous vehicle technology, let me know at admin@CarsAndRacingStuff.com and I'll add it to the list!

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