After a few years of strong optimism regarding driverless cars and their potential to radically transform the way people live and travel, recent incidents and statements by key industry leaders may put a damper on that enthusiasm. Also, it may create significant implications for Washington’s Autonomous Vehicle Work Group as it looks to make recommendations to the state legislature.
However, some transportation experts say the shifting attitudes will eventually swing back in a more positive direction once expectations are more closely aligned with the reality of how autonomous vehicle (AV) technology actually develops and progresses.
“They’re beginning to discover some things are harder than they thought,” Global Telematics President John Niles said.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) classifies autonomous vehicles in four levels, with level five as fully autonomous with no driver needed to operate. Car companies such as Waymo, Tesla and Ford are working on vehicles that fall between levels three and four.
“The hype was playing the level five to the limit,” Niles said. “You’ll just send your car to take your kids to the daycare or send it out for a pizza or groceries. For all this talk about how autonomous vehicles are coming quickly, wait a minute. Not quite.”
However, last November Waymo CEO John Krafcik said that level five AVs capable of operating in all conditions without a driver is impossible. Waymo was originally created as the Google self-driving car project.
The current limitations of the technology was demonstrated in March of last year when a self-driving Uber in Arizona operating on a dark road struck and killed a pedestrian in a marked crosswalk; at the time of the incident, the back-up driver was streaming NBCs “The Voice” on her phone. However, it was later discovered Uber had disabled the vehicle’s automatic braking system that might have prevented the accident.
After pulling its fleet from the roads, Uber’s driverless cars are now back at it, but angst over their presence on public roads has prompted attacks on AVs. The reaction seems to affirm the conclusions of a 2018 research paper by Kanwaldeep Kaur and Giselle Rampersad published in the Journal of Engineering and Technology Management. The paper argued the “main barrier to adoption is the lack of public trust,” and anticipates driverless cars won’t become mainstream in the near future.
Others are highly cautious about speculating either way on the future of AVs. Regarding whether driverless five technology will ever happen, Washington Policy Center Transportation Director Mariya Frost told Lens “a lot of things were never supposed to happen.” She added that “it’s important to make sure that private citizens have the choice to purchase and own autonomous vehicles, and that AVs are not solely owned and operated by government entities.”
Policy-wise, the chasm between level four and level five AVs is wide. Without a driver, issues of liability in the event of accidents or collisions are raised. Also, a debate over whether a legal adult – or a human at all – is required to be in the vehicle while it is operating would undoubtedly spark debate over security and safety.
“The real deal is when you take a licensed operator out of the car,” Niles said. “That’s the issue. That’s a little ways down the road. We’ve got time to figure this out.”
Coauthor of “The End of Driving,” Niles also coauthored a paper with Bern Grush titled “Getting past the hype” that examines AVs using Gartner’s Technology Hype Cycle. The paper concluded that over-hype regarding level five AVs would create disillusionment, followed by a more realistic attitude possibly around 2020.
Even if the level five AV technology is ever realized, Niles writes that they would “suffer severe access limitations in their first decade or so,” in part because their use “implies either mixing them with semi-autonomous ones on the same roadway, setting up separate lanes and safe-havens at great expense.”
In the meantime, Niles says as far as regulations are concerned, “automation so far has been no problem. There has always been a responsible driver behind the wheel. The path that we’re on right now, they’re going to assist drivers, they’re going to make things safer, they’re going to cut down on congestion.”
A more modest vision for fully autonomous vehicles would have them restricted to closed environments, whether that be public transportation systems like Vancouver, B.C.’s SkyTrain, a corporate campus, industry work sites or a private resort such as Disneyworld. Closed environments like those are ones in which people “are most likely to adopt driverless cars,” according to Kaur and Rampersad’s paper.