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Is the widespread introduction of driverless cars the right path?

5 min read

The idea that cars can drive themselves while passengers can safely stretch out their arms and relax is almost as old as the car itself.

And it’s amazing that today’s practical application isn’t all that far removed from the future envisioned by General Motors in the 1950s (albeit with less singing than GM had in mind at the time).

Yet we have not yet reached the tipping point where driverless cars can be seamlessly adopted as mainstream technology.

Things have gone back and forth quite a bit since the first practical conversations about autonomous cars last decade. We thought they couldn’t be hacked, only to find out that hacking is a serious problem, and even now their security is still a little unclear.

Manufacturers like Honda and Mercedes have done it with their driverless vehicles SAE level 3 (“conditional automation”), while others like Tesla, General Motors and Ford are catching up.

But how far are we from the time when we can think about a family car that doesn’t need a human pilot? Whether this will be a few years or a decade or two is difficult to say.

Let’s try to shed some light on the matter by taking a look at the current state of adoption of this technology, including the obstacles (pun intended) that are currently preventing it from becoming widespread.

Autonomous vehicles are already mainstream – to a certain extent

The industry standard for driverless cars accepts six different levels of autonomy, which are provided by SAE International to be discribed. They range from 0 (conventional, fully human-driven cars) to 5 (essentially sci-fi vehicles that don’t require accelerator or brake pedals – they can even include hypothetical vehicles with no wheels).

However, it’s amazing how common some of the most advanced Tier 2 features are. For example, adaptive cruise control (ACC) and lane keeping assistance system (LKAS) have already become standard equipment in all new cars: 91% and 86% respectively of vehicles sold today are equipped with these systems.

Level 2 vehicles account for 41% of new vehicle sales. This means we are ushering in a new era of semi-autonomous vehicles that, while not yet driverless, can automatically adjust their speed or lane to protect us. And this is happening before our eyes in a very short period of time, as the number of Level 2 vehicles has doubled in just three years.

However, there are still some obstacles that prevent this technology from reaching the truly futuristic levels 4 and 5.

The first hurdle: security (or lack thereof)

A quick search for accidents and collisions involving driverless vehicles in 2023 will return several results.

From driving on the wrong side of the road to… Self-driving in construction sites – autonomous cars still seem a little…unreliable when faced with unexpected circumstances.

Most of these accidents are hardly serious or even fatal, but they were serious (and frequent) enough to force General Motors to stop its Cruise robo-taxis fleet in San Francisco reduced by 50% after repeated collisions.

However, it is questionable how much of these accidents are really caused by driverless cars.

After all, we’re building autonomous driver assistance systems into new cars to increase road safety, right?

According to Gitnux, accidents per million kilometers driven for Waymo’s self-driving cars are 0.59, compared to the general US rate for all cars of 2.98and it is speculated that widespread adoption of autonomous vehicles can reduce accidents by 90%.

While it’s biased to single out the odd accident caused (or involved in) by a self-driving car to portray it as unsafe, it’s arguably just as overkill to take that 90% at face value .

To truly ensure road safety, one could argue, all vehicles should be autonomous, for only then could we be sure that they all obey the rules of the road with the rigor of a machine rather than the freedom of a human.

In other words, the more we introduce driverless cars, the safer they can become and the more likely they can be adopted. As with many other disruptive technologies, adoption will be exponential rather than linear—we’re not yet at the point where the adoption curve begins to climb vertically.

Emergency Vehicles: The Nemesis of Driverless Cars

And that brings us to the next point: by far the number one cause of accidents, collisions and breakdowns is the inability of driverless vehicles to respond to the unpredictability of human behavior. A few weeks ago they reported San Francisco police and fire departments objected to the California Power Commission’s decision to allow self-driving car manufacturers to expand their programs.

According to emergency responders, autonomous vehicles tend to behave erratically and unreliably when colliding with fire engines, ambulances, or other emergency vehicles.

Driverless cars still struggle to deal with inherent unpredictability and the need to violate traffic rules to allow transit or mobility in emergencies. How much of that will be a burden?

If you want to know how this works in practice, watch a driverless car drive silently towards the fire department, while she rolls out the hose for a large house fire.

Trust in driverless cars does not just depend on their safety

The problem with the emergency vehicles may seem insignificant and could be solved by improving some algorithms, but there is a serious problem behind it.

Our lack of trust in vehicles that cannot be controlled by the driver is a major psychological block that prevents us from accepting them. More than two thirds of drivers (68%) would be afraid of driving in a self-driving vehicle, “in the wrong direction” so to speak; this percentage increased last year.

This means that people are feeling increasingly unsafe, even as smart cars get better and safer over time.

A crucial step towards acceptance is not just ensuring that these cars can drive themselves perfectly on the road. It’s about finding a way to build a good, possibly human-like relationship with drivers to gain the public’s trust.

Drivers must have a clear understanding of the system and rules of autonomous driving (as well as their legal responsibilities in the event of an accident) and feel able to control and override the systems if something goes wrong.

The conclusion

We’re probably not ready to get into a talking, intelligent, rocket-like car and sing 1950s style with our family.

But if we look at where we were just five years ago and where we are today, our journey towards fully automated driving has taken a giant leap forward.

It’s hard to say how long it will be before we can truly view the steering wheel as an obsolete piece of our past, but it will likely happen much sooner than most of us can expect.

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All content in this article is for informational purposes only and in no way serves as investment advice. Investing in cryptocurrencies, commodities and stocks is very risky and can lead to capital losses.