NMA E-Newsletter #331: The Tradeoffs of Driverless Cars

No development in the auto industry has attracted more attention lately than the prospect of driverless cars. And with good reason. Driverless car advocates promise many potential benefits including safer roads, less congestion, greater mobility and convenience, and lower insurance costs.

As we pointed out in our summer 2013 Driving Freedoms cover story, driverless cars will surely change the way we drive (or don’t drive), but many unknowns remain. Let’s take a look at some of the recent news to see where things stand two year later.

To date, four states—California, Nevada, Michigan and Florida—have passed legislation enabling the testing of driverless cars on public roads. Check here for the status of similar legislation in other states.

Driverless car pioneer Google made news last week when it reported that its driverless car fleet had been in 11 accidents since it began testing six years ago. According to Google, the accidents were minor (no injuries) and occurred throughout 1.7 million miles of combined autonomous and manual driving. That’s about twice the national average for property-only auto accidents. Although, as Google pointed out, many minor accidents likely go unreported.

Google also stated that none of the accidents were the fault of the driverless car. However, neither Google nor the California Department of Motor Vehicles has released any of the accident reports, so we must rely on Google’s self-reporting for the details.

This lack of transparency worries some observers, given the unanswered technical questions and far-reaching public safety issues involved. For example, most driverless cars perform well under controlled conditions, but throw in a few potholes or some snow, and the technology becomes suspect. As one expert recently told The Detroit News:

“Everybody can operate on a prototype level pretty well,” said Pat Bassett, vice president of North American research and engineering center for auto supplier Denso International America Inc. “It’s when there’s no perfect conditions or when the weather’s bad … there’s still some technical challenges and some legal issues that have to be resolved.”

Regarding legal issues, the big question still is who is liable when a driverless car gets into an accident? The automaker? The passenger? The software developer? These questions may not be answered until a driverless car actually crashes under normal driving conditions. The automakers are thinking ahead, however, and have been lobbying state legislatures for certain liability exemptions related to driverless cars.

Speaking of the automakers, they continue to pursue driverless cars of their own. At the recent Shanghai Auto Show, Chevrolet unveiled the FNR autonomous car concept, complete with roof-mounted radar, a sensor array and swivel seats. Ford has partnered with Stanford University to fast track driverless car development, and Ford President and CEO Mark Fields said he expects to see driverless cars on the road within five years.

Due to the connectivity requirements needed to make driverless cars run, they will generate untold amounts of locational and personal data about their occupants. Privacy concerns revolve around how government and private entities will use, store and share this data. Look for marketers to serve up personalized in-vehicle ads or exterior billboards based on the characteristics of the occupant or the route taken.

Depending on who’s in charge of vehicle routing, a private company could route vehicles based on commercial considerations, and a government agency could route vehicles based on congestion or other social engineering concerns. (Click here for a fascinating, in-depth analysis of the privacy and legal issues surrounding autonomous vehicles.)

We’re pleased to see more attention focused on the interaction between the vehicle occupant and the car. We saw little of this two years ago and believe it’s one of the more important issues that needs to be addressed. Our concerns center on the ability of the passenger to take control of the vehicle in an emergency, if that option is even available. The original Google car didn’t have a steering wheel or brake pedal. However, California law requires self-driving cars that allow people to take control if something goes wrong. Google has since said it will modify its design accordingly. (Click here for more on the human/driverless car interface.)

The bottom line on driverless cars comes down to control. Many people will gladly give up that control in exchange for convenience, added safety and cost savings. As we said in Driving Freedoms, we only hope there’s still an open lane for those of us who enjoy driving and wish to maintain some sense of freedom, privacy and personal responsibility.

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