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There is much public excitement about automated cars, and some automakers even promise them by 2020. But once they arrive, many people may be surprised by the form they take.

The attraction of fully automated vehicles is simple. Today we drive our cars to work, but in the future they will drive us. Everything that happens between points A and B can be taken over by a system of GPS, lasers, processors, and software (see “Driverless Cars Are Further Away Than You Think”).

The benefits would be significant. With less risk of human error, there should be far fewer accidents. Commuters could use their time on the road to relax or work. Many people unable to drive today might gain independence. If we could start our transportation systems from scratch today, we probably would go directly to automated vehicles for these very reasons. 

One can argue that technology is already up to the task of making a better-­than-human driver. However, there are now 250 million human-controlled vehicles on U.S. roads. Adding significant numbers of fully automated vehicles to that self-organized chaos is not simple. We all experience every day how important eye contact between drivers is, and we know that not everyone follows traffic rules.

For a car to be called fully automated, I believe, it also needs to be connected. Vehicles will need to exchange data with their neighbors to avoid misinterpretation and collisions. If such wireless links aren’t deployed broadly by 2020, humans will still need to be ready to jump in as mediators between vehicles. I would call that not “fully” but just “partly” automated driving.

Another challenge is earning the trust of the humans inside and outside the cars. Some people have told me they fear an automated vehicle would lack the “survival instinct” of a human driver. The engineers programming such vehicles will face ethical questions. Should an automated car drive its passengers off a cliff to avoid crashing into a peloton of cyclists on a mountain road? Working out the laws that apply to automated vehicles adds further complications.

Those challenges make me believe that the first self-driving car is more likely to be a geeky little mobility pod on the roads around a shopping mall than an automated supercar cruising along the freeway. As the problems of existing traffic, laws, and infrastructure are solved, those pods might grow in size, functionality, and speed. They could graduate to surface roads and dedicated highway lanes. Only after that could we get fully automated personal vehicles.

Sven Beiker is executive director of the Center for Automotive Research at Stanford University.


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Credit: Illustration by Sam Kerr

Tagged: Computing

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