Self-driving Vehicles Are Here But Driverless Ones Are A Ways Off
Much attention has been paid to self-driving and driverless vehicles. While both terms have often been used interchangeably, they are different. "Self-driving" means some level of autonomy or automation, but the driver is expected to drive under certain circumstances and road conditions. The vehicle may prompt driver involvement. "Driverless" means that there is no human intervention except to input the destination; the vehicle does the rest. There would be no steering wheel or pedals.
Self-driving vehicles are already in use. In general, except for high-end vehicles, the technologies may best be described as "driver assistance," such as (adaptive) cruise control that maintains safe distances. The level of automation will grow with innovation. However, true driverless vehicles are a decade off, perhaps even more. With regard to moving freight, truck drivers will not be losing their jobs any time soon.
Technological feasibility continues to evolve, but driverless passenger and commercial vehicles would have to learn every possible driving scenario. In addition the legal, public investment and consumer acceptance obstacles are many. It's obvious that those who can't or won't drive would be likely users of driverless passenger vehicles, personal and shared-ride, and as the population ages, there will be more such people. But many drivers will resist being herded into driverless vehicles, and how would you force them?
Able-bodied drivers would likely not ride in a vehicle that always obeys the 55 miles per hour speed limit. According to a transportation colleague from Germany, automakers there are not seriously planning driverless vehicles. I presume that BMW does not intend to be "the ultimate pod that slowly takes you from point A to point B" instead of "the ultimate driving machine." Should driverless vehicles be programmed to break the speed limit? Would government or the insurance industry allow that? Would we be more or less liable in a crash? How should a driverless vehicle facing a crash scenario react? How would a driverless vehicle decide about the likely severity of damage when making its choice?
Self-driving and driverless vehicles could provide significant safety benefits. The great majority of crashes - note, I don't call them "accidents" - are caused by human error. It's been estimated that connected vehicles, self-driving or driverless vehicles that communicate with each other will reduce non-impaired crashes by 80%, saving many lives. Such a reduction in crashes will dramatically lessen the nonrecurring congestion that can slow our commutes to a crawl.
Managing a road network with mixed driver-operated and fully self-driving/driverless/connected vehicles will be complicated, and the greatest reduction in crashes will not happen until just about all vehicles are so advanced. A national online survey conducted at Morgan State University asked drivers what their acceptance of and willingness-to-pay for connected vehicle safety technologies would be. The survey showed that while consumer acceptance of such technologies was high, the expected prices were a significant concern. Let's be clear, a fully self-driving or driverless connected vehicle will be quite expensive during the early phases of deployment. It's been suggested that prices for safety technologies would come down over time, just as they did for computers and mobile phones. Computers and phones are no longer cheap; their capabilities and pricing have changed. While safety technologies do "trickle down" to modestly priced vehicles, when have motor vehicle prices experienced a downward trend?
While fully self-driving and driverless vehicles stimulate the imagination, uncertainties loom beyond the necessary technological innovations. Many issues have to be resolved before we see them abundantly on our roads.
Dr. Andrew Farkas is the director of the Urban Mobility & Equity Center and the National Transportation Center, which are both located at Morgan State University.