Berkeley Auto Body Shop Discusses Robocar Reality
Self-driving cars made a fictional appearance in the 2004 movie interpretation of Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot, where they were just one aspect of a technology that had gone too far in relieving humans of responsibility. Asimov penned his I, Robot series to take place in 2015. And in 2015, it’s come to this: auto manufacturers are expecting to market self-driving cars within not decades, but a few years. Volkswagen, Mercedes–Benz, Delphi, Tesla, Bosch, Nissan, and Google have been authorized by the California DMV to test driverless cars on our public roads.
Autonomous and semi-autonomous transportation systems have been evolving for decades and are currently used in warehouses, airplanes, and for automated safety features in automobiles. However, a crucial difference between auto piloted passenger cars and the already introduced autonomous transport technologies is that roads are far more complex than a warehouse or the sky. The current prototypes of self-driving cars have a long way to go before they can master this complexity.
To the driverless car, an obstacle is an obstacle. A wandering dog and a newspaper blowing around are of equal value, both to be steered around. A traffic cop looks the same as any other pedestrian. Gestures and facial expressions are meaningless. The car’s “knowledge” of the route depends largely on the map in the database; changed conditions, such as a construction zone, a power outage affecting a traffic light, or a parade, can’t be “understood” by the self-driving car at its present stage of development. It’s expected that driverless cars will see their first use in simpler settings, such as industrial parks. Yet the long-range objective, according to Google, is a complete replacement of the human at the wheel, all while realizing a great increase in safety.
The Safety Factor
With millions of nonfatal injuries and tens of thousands of traffic fatalities annually, U.S. traffic takes a devastating emotional toll. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), 90 percent of crashes are caused by human error, and a fourth of fatalities are associated with a driver under the influence of alcohol. Enough already, robocar advocates argue; removing the human from the driving equation will keep more people out of hospitals and morgues, more cars out of auto body shops. As mentioned in last week’s blog, the economic costs of collisions are high as well; in principle, self-driving cars will save a lot of money.
They are also touted as saving tedium, a factor that contributes to collisions. In the doldrums of rush-hour stop-and-go conditions, boredom causes a person’s attention to flag. The computer is never bored. It will continue keeping in lane, maintaining following distance, and scanning the movements of cars for 360 degrees around, responding to their maneuvers.
Most people following the developments agree that the programming issues are surmountable. The worries surround technology failures—the programming code for self-driven cars is ten times more extensive than for aircraft, and all technologies have a failure rate—and matters of judgment beyond the scope of a machine.
The Responsibility Factor
Insurance companies would like to see fewer collisions, and they are expected to back the driverless car fully once the technological obstacles have been overcome. But who is at fault in a crash involving a self-driven car? Is the driver free from liability? It’s one thing for a motor vehicle policy to cover the costs of collision repair service; but what about the scale of a lawsuit brought against a car manufacturer for faulty programming or a computer malfunction?
It’s also a question whether taking away the driver’s responsibility in case of collision would have a net positive or negative emotional effect. If the driver has chosen to leave the car’s operation to a computer and the car then crashes, does the driver feel relief at being blameless or horror at being helpless? In the event self-driven cars actually prove themselves much safer overall, could our society see a movement to ban human drivers? As developments in auto piloted cars accelerate, we can expect many more challenging questions to await down the road.