A Reality Check for Autonomous Vehicles

Building a car that we drive is one thing. Building a car that drives itself is a whole other complex ball of reality. The way the media has been screaming about autonomous vehicles or AVs, you would think that we would be passengers inside them tomorrow.  Finally, automakers are fessing up and saying that you should not expect to see any AVs in auto showrooms anytime soon.

During the recent Palo Alto Bloomberg New Energy Finance’s (BNEF) Future of Mobility Summit, 300 automotive, energy and technology executives were asked in an informal live poll when the world would reach level 5 full autonomy. Nearly 75 percent said it would not be before 2030 and 40 percent said sometime after that.

Independent AV analyst Annie Lien said, “The poll makes me happy because four years ago, even two years ago, this would have been completely different. It would have been that everyone thought that it would be 2020, or a majority would have thought it was 2020 because people did not understand what true Level 5 is, and there were a lot of misconceptions.”

Yep. You got that right!

Back down to reality—most adult Americans still drive in this country and automakers continue to struggle with on a nearly weekly basis a multitude of auto recalls of current cars. You place the complexity of AI on top of all of that…how can the consumer trust that we will be able to safely go where we want when we want?

In early February, BNEF published an intelligent mobility market update that stated 21 states have already passed AV legislation with 19 states allowing road tests. Each state’s regulations are different of course. For example, California requires all companies testing AVs in the state to submit a yearly disengagement report that states how many times an AV needed a human behind the wheel.

In 2017, 507,126 AV testing miles were logged in California and the companies that tested reported 2304 disengagements or one every 220 miles or so. Privacy and Technology Director for Consumer Watchdog John Simpson says that’s not nearly safe enough for deployment anytime soon. He added, “Despite the self-serving hype of the manufacturers, robot technology simply isn’t ready for our roads without hands-on, behind the wheel engagement and supervision by a human driver.”

And what about national regulations or even standards? With great fanfare, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a lukewarm AV law last September, the Senate continues to struggle with their version of the law and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the federal department who will oversee AV implementation, seems to be decidedly on the fence with automakers and not consumers.

Texas Tech University School of Law Professor, Tracy Hresko Pearl wrote an academic paper recently that contends the NHTSA is making a “critical mistake” by not regulating semi-autonomous vehicles at Level 3. Currently, she sees two problems with current regulations”

·   Automakers can place any form of automation into their vehicles without assurance before use that systems have been deemed safe.
·   Automakers also must comply with the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards which were created before level 3+ cars were created which makes the relevancy of the standards in doubt.

To make semi-AVs safe, Pearl makes a strong case why the Feds should regulate vehicle design and equipment and set safety standards. The Feds need to also introduce a mandatory pre-market approval process that requires a safety assessment and how the vehicle stacks up to standard measurements.

That’s a good start but many feel that AVs should skip semi-autonomous and go for full autonomous for safety reasons. Let’s face it, if we allow our cars to take over driving in a semi-autonomous state, we are either going to be holding hands above the steering wheel scared out of our skulls or we are going to read or nap and let the car do all the work and we won’t be aware enough when the car might need our intervention.  Ford announced early last year that they plan to shoot for level 5 and skip semi-autonomous driving. They noticed that their engineers began to doze while testing at level 3.

There is a long road ahead for automakers when it comes to building safe AVs for all of us. At least automakers are finally admitting it!

 

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