self driving cars and the future

The development of ‘self-driving’ or ‘autonomous’ car  technologies have advanced to very promising levels in recent years and could become Commercially available within a few years.  This promising new technology has been increasingly supported by many Companies and the Public due to the many possible advantages of self-driving cars.  New self-driving car technologies could provide a broad range of benefits including significantly increased on-road safety and reduced accidents, to making this mode of transportation substantially more efficient than manually driven vehicles.  Unfortunately one of the largest challenges to eventually marketing self-driving car technology is managing the potential safety risks and associated liabilities.  Due to the recent experience of Automobile Manufacturer’s that have experienced real or potential defects in their relatively simple vehicle electronic operating controls, Companies like Toyota now face $Billions in legal-liability expenses.  The potential for similar incidents-problems developing in substantially more complex self-driving technologies are likely significant and many Experts believe that managing the safety risks and liabilities could become major development-permitting barriers.  What feasible improvements or innovations could help facilitate the successful development-marketing of self-driving technologies and minimizing possible risks in the future?

Evolution and Benefits of Self-Driving Cars – The automobile has developed quite substantially since the first mass-produced Model-T’s a100 years ago.  These first vehicles had ‘manual-everything’ technologies including starting the motors with hand-cranks.  Over time numerous developments and innovations began first with electric starters, followed by automatic transmissions, to power steering/brakes, to state-of-art ABS, ESC, and cruise control systems.  More recent and some of the major building blocks to more complex ‘self-driving’ technologies included ‘lane departure warning’, ‘self parking’ automation, and ‘obstacle or collision avoidance’ systems.  All these technologies increased the safety and convenience of driving modern automobiles.  With the further development of various types of obstacle/movement sensors, advanced GPS and operating-computing technologies the natural next step is to automate the full vehicle control by developing autonomous or self-driving cars.

The potential advantages of self-driving cars are numerous.  The broad range of sensors can monitor a vehicle’s movement and the movement of other vehicles, pedestrians, and potential obstacles much more thoroughly than the average driver, and can safely react to potential collusion hazards much quicker than average human reflexive capabilities.  These vehicle operating advantages could substantially reduce the current total 10 million U.S. motor vehicle accidents annually and reduce associated fatalities by possibly thousands per year.  Other benefits include more efficient use of existing highway and road systems by reducing traffic congestion/delays and continuously operating vehicles with maximum fuel efficiencies (similar to a recent TEC “Smart Driver” Post for example).  Just think, if everyone’s vehicle normally operated safely during trips, including at all stops and intersections, continuously turning or merging safely onto all freeway/road systems, and continuously maintained speeds within all established speed-safety limits, we could possibly prevent most past-current accidents.

Self-Driving Car Regulatory Approval – Numerous major companies are developing self-driving (or autonomous) cars in recent years including General Motors, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan, and Bosch, and other non-auto manufacturers in addition to Google.  In general, self-driving vehicles have only been approved for testing on Public roads within a limited number of States (CA, FL, and NV recently).  The natural sequence for this testing involves first self-driving limited distances at lower (<40 mph) speeds, followed by driving greater distances at higher speeds.  Thus far test self-driving cars have logged many 100,000’s of miles without one single reported accident.  These results should help facilitate eventually beginning the new technology approval process for Public/Privately owned-operated self-driving cars in many or most States within possibly the next several years.

Major Challenges to Developing Self-Driving Car Technologies – Thus far the major challenge to the development and eventual marketing of self-driving cars has been normal R&D performance and installed system costs.  A test Google autonomous (self-driving) system initially cost about $100K-$150K to fabricate and install.  More recent Industry developments have reportedly reduced the system cost down to about $50K per vehicle.  Some Companies predict future self-driving system cost reductions down to possibly $10K or less per vehicle within the next 10 years.  The reduced future costs will definitely increase the attractiveness to average Consumers.

A more recent barrier or self-driving car development concern is the risk of on-road test or future Private Consumer accidents.  Unfortunately, past legal precedents have substantially increased the risk or potential liability for all forms of real or perceived defects or malfunctions of automotive automation systems.  For example, in the past accelerator or gas pedals were directly-mechanically (cable) connected to carburetor or fuel injection throttles for controlling a vehicle’s speed and acceleration.  As vehicles became technologically advanced, the manual throttles were upgraded and replaced by electronic throttle control systems. Unfortunately a sticking throttle system/petal problem developed a few years ago in a number of Toyota vehicles.  First was the complaint-report of the gas pedals became physically stuck in the floor mats, and later the problems reportedly developed with the electronic throttle control system malfunction.  Even though testing of vehicles after the accidents of claimed uncontrolled (driverless) acceleration increases found no verifiable malfunctions or defects, Toyota was still subject to numerous individual and class action legal suits that required substantial legal-settlement costs.  And, eventually required a massive recall of many Toyota’s to replace possible throttle control element defects.

Self-driving cars involve much more complex electronic controls beyond just engine throttle systems.  This new technology includes detailed mapping of programmed travel routes, including speed limits, intersections/merge lanes, traffic signals/signs, and identifying permanent stationary objects.  The sensory equipment and controls are designed to recognize all known and newly encountered obstacles including other stationary or mobile vehicles, pedestrians, etc.  The operating computer control systems are extremely sophisticated and designed to analyze all the numerous operating-travelling variables encountered and properly control the vehicle’s steering, speed, acceleration, braking and signals in the safest and most efficient manner.

Despite the development of state-of-art self-driving car technology the risk of a single control component malfunction/failure or component defect, or an on-road operating variable not adequately addressed by the computer control system, are still possible.  Based on Toyota’s recent experience, the risk and liability expense associated with a real or perceived malfunction or design gap of a single electronic control component could be quite substantial.

All current self-driving cars have generally been designed and tested on roads in good repair and predictable condition.  While the motion sensor-GPS-advanced computer control systems can be designed to manage all the known and probable driving variables (typical road obstacles, other vehicles, pedestrians, etc.), travel-operating conditions can be encountered or develop that may not be adequately handled by a given self-driving automation system.  These include heavy rain-hail storms (reduced sensor performance), flooded roads or black ice (conditions that sensors/programs may not be able to reliably identify or address), new sink/pot holes (possibly outside the sensor’s scanning capability), active road maintenance (short-term pavement-operation changes), etc.  Even yielding to emergency vehicles (Ambulances, Fire Trucks, or Police) could be problematic with current self-driving technologies.  Under these conditions the self-driving control most likely must be immediately switched back to manual driver operation to avoid these difficult and more complex or unpredictable road hazards.

When self-driving cars are eventually involved in a possibly limited number of future accidents, the first question that must be addressed is what was the primary cause?  Was the accident due to another vehicle, a self-driving system malfunction, or the self-driving/autonomous car backup driver’s failure to operate the vehicle safely as required under certain circumstances?

A Feasible Solution To Clearly Identifying the Primary Cause of A Self-Driving Car Accident - One potential solution to clearly identifying the cause for a self-driving car’s future accident is to continuously and thoroughly record the vehicle’s operating performance data prior to the accident.  That way when an accident does occur all the operating data and control actions will be recorded-saved and available to help identify the primary cause.  If another vehicle was involved the sensor/camera would record its unsafe entry into the self-driving car’s path or the other vehicle colliding with the self-driving car before the control system could feasibly react.  If the accident was caused by the self-driving computer-control system malfunction then the operating alarm/error data would be recorded.  And, if the accident was caused by the self-driving car’s backup driver’s failure to take over manual operation as needed, this data would also be recorded.

The required technology to record all the self-driving computer-electronic operating data already exists.  It would involve installing an on-board data recorder device or technology similar to a ‘black box’ to fully record all critical operating data prior to any and during all potential accidents.  The data could then be accessed following a given accident-incident to help determine its primary cause.  The procedure would be pretty straight forward: following an accident the Police would pull the car’s black box, send it to their Station’s Incident Analyst and the Analyst would then determine the primary cause for the accident.  Proper-legal actions would then likely follow.  Hopefully the new self-driving technology has developed to the level that avoids chronic/repeat failures or malfunctions and the backup driver has been trained to take over manual operation when and as needed.  Another advantage of recording all operating data for say up to a year (pretty easy with today’s low-cost memory capacities) is that any random or newly developing self-driving control system problem can be recorded and made available to shop Mechanics during routine annual vehicle maintenance/servicing.  The potential electronic control problem could then be identified and corrected to prevent a future incident.

Possible Liabilities of a Future Self-Driving Car Accident – If a future accident is found to be due to a defect, malfunction or failure of the self-driving automated control system the consequences and costs could be quite significant.  A broad number of Law Firms specialize in and are waiting to go after those with the ‘deep pockets’ in the event of a potential pattern manufacturing/technology performance problem.  If the backup driver fails to take over manual operation as required to safely operate the self-driving car under all conditions, expensive legal actions could also result.  That’s why all owner-drivers are required to be insured of course.  What many self-driving car Advocates may not fully understand is that even the most advanced autonomous or self-driving technology will likely still require a backup driver sometime, under certain circumstances.  If the single self-driving car passenger wants to sleep during the trip or become fully focused on some smart phone app, they need to commute with another licensed passenger/backup driver ready and willing to take over the self-driving car’s operation as needed.

Other Possible Upgrades Needed to Maximize the Safety and Efficiency of Self-Driving Cars – Self-driving cars will likely be operated most frequently, safely and efficiently within Urban settings or within major City limits.  To minimize the most hazardous vehicle travel operating variables the entire in-City roads-transportation system may eventually have to be fully integrated with some form a general or ‘master control’ system.  The master control system could monitor the location, movements and programmed routines of all on-road vehicles and continuously communicate with all those vehicles as needed to reliably maintain overall roads system safety and maximize transit/fuel efficiencies.  This could possible mean that eventually all on-road vehicles must be self-driving/autonomous controlled, which would possibly prohibit the use/entry of manually operated vehicles within City limits or designated-automated self-driving vehicle travel corridors.  The roads must also be continuously and properly maintained to avoid this potential poor road condition operating hazards-variables.  And, severe weather conditions will also have to be addressed to avoid this potentially major on-road transit risk to numerous operating self-driving vehicles.

Further upgrades may be eventually needed to mitigate other potential safety-accident variables and increase the efficiency of in-City traffic flows.  Increased road safety could include installing physical barriers to prevent Pedestrians from illegally entering roadways between intersections.  Traffic flow efficiency could also be possibly increased by more efficiently programming or replacing intersection signal lights with ‘traffic circles’ or ‘roundabouts’.  These and other needed upgrades should eventually make self-driving/autonomous cars safe enough to operate in truly ‘driverless’ modes one day.

The next challenge for substantially expanding the safe application of self-driving car fleets will be to develop the sensors and other needed technologies to safely operate in more Rural settings.  Major highways or freeways should not be significantly challenging.  It’s the two-lane highways and other Rural side-road systems that normally have increased transit operating variables and increased potential road hazards that will be more challenging.  These include significant gravel roads (traction concerns), more frequencies of weather related hazards (floods and ice), rocks and other natural on-road debris (fallen from adjacent road hillsides), wild animals, etc.  In the interim, self-driving cars will probably require manual driver operation on most (off-freeway) Rural roads or until these more frequent and hazardous road conditions can be safety addressed by future self-driving/autonomous technology improvements and further innovations.