June 25, 2016


Autonomous Vehicles Shift into High Gear : Self-driving systems may have bugs but they are free from the myriad distractions and risk-taking behaviors that are the most common causes of crashes today (Dr Bernard Meyerson, June 23, 2016, Scientific American)

We are now on the cusp of an equally transformative technological shift in transportation: from vehicles driven by humans to vehicles that drive themselves. The long-term impact of autonomous vehicles on society is hard to predict, but also hard to overstate. The only certainty is that wherever this technology becomes ubiquitous, life will be different than it was.

Google and other companies have been testing self-driving cars for several years now, with good success. These autos process vast amounts of sensory data from on-board radars, cameras, ultrasonic range-finders, GPS, and stored maps to navigate routes through ever more complex and rapidly changing traffic situations without any human involvement.

Consumer use of vehicles with autonomous capabilities, however, is just beginning.  Adoption will proceed gradually, through the steady implementation of increasingly intelligent safety and convenience features in otherwise ordinary cars. Some models, for example, already offer hands-off parallel parking, automatic lane-keeping, emergency braking, or even semi-autonomous cruise control. Last October, Tesla Motors made available a software package that enables a limited form of self-driving operation for owners of its vehicles to download.

This trend is likely to continue as such technology matures and as legal and regulatory barriers start to fall. Half a dozen states have already authorized autonomous road vehicles, and more have plans to do so. Discussions are well underway among auto insurers and legislators about how to apportion liability and costs when self-driving cars get into crashes, as they inevitably will--although it is widely expected that these cars will prove to be much safer, on average, than driver-operated cars are today.

There is plenty of room for improvement on that front. In the United States, crashes and collisions claim more than 30,000 lives and cause some 2.3 million injuries annually. Self-driving systems may have bugs--the software that runs them is complicated--but they are free from the myriad distractions and risk-taking behaviors that are the most common causes of crashes today. In the near term, semi-autonomous safety systems that engage only to prevent accidents, but that otherwise leave the driver in charge, will also likely reduce the human cost of driving significantly.

Posted by at June 25, 2016 8:16 AM