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Published On: Fri, Oct 7th, 2016

Can Self-Driving Cars Be Safe and Free of Car Accidents?

Ford Motor Company, Google, Tesla and other manufacturers are developing proto-types of self driving cars. The companies claim that self-driving cars will reduce traffic accidents by reducing human errors that cause many crashes. But the proto-types of semi-autonomous cars require a human driver to remain alert and to take the wheel if needed.

As a recent article in MIT Technology Review notes, the robotics in the prototype self-driving cars do not do enough to ensure that human drivers remain focused on the road and may actually increase the number of deaths caused by distracted driving.

Will Drivers Remain Alert Enough to Assist Semi-Autonomous Cars?

As currently designed, semi-autonomous cars alert the driver to take control of the vehicle in situations that the autopilot robotics cannot immediately recognize. This requires an alert to sound and the driver to take the wheel and react to the situation in the road ahead, all potentially in a split-second.

photo Gerd Altmann via pixabay

photo Gerd Altmann via pixabay

If the driver is distracted and the autonomous system does not work properly, or if the human ignores the warnings and the road, accidents may occur, the MIT article states.

A driver who is checking their phone or turning to talk to a passenger because they do not think they need to watch the road could miss a car’s alert altogether. If the driver does hear the alert, there may not be enough time for the driver to look up from their phone, understand the hazard and react to avoid a crash. The frequency of car accidents caused by distracted drivers may slow the introduction of the first driver-free” cars.

In the fatal crash of a Tesla autonomous car, the alert failed to sound and no brakes were applied prior to the deadly collision with a tractor-trailer. Lack of braking suggests that the driver was not watching the road, the writer from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology commented.

U.S. and Individual States Look at Regulating Self-Driving Cars

The federal government says that self-driving cars will promote highway safety and has issued policy for the development of autonomous vehicles.

In its guidelines for self-driving vehicle performance, the U.S. Department of Transportation uses a 15-point Safety Assessment of expectations for manufacturers developing and deploying automated vehicle technologies. 

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration policy also provides guidance for states as they begin to enact laws allowing development and use of automated vehicles, including the standardization of self-driving policies across all 50 states.

This would presumably include amending existing laws pertaining to distracted driving.

For example, Massachusetts’ Safe Driving Law prohibits sending, typing or reading electronic messages to or from handheld devices while operating a motor vehicle. This includes use of the internet and text messaging.

Future law will need to state explicitly that prohibitions meant to deter texting while driving and other forms of distracted driving apply to semi-autonomous and autonomous vehicles, just as they do to manually driven cars and trucks.

Public Expresses Skepticism Over Driver-Free Vehicles

Many Americans are still wary of the idea of riding in a driverless car.

Kelley Blue Book poll cited by USA Today found that 62 percent of the people surveyed doubted that they would live to see fully autonomous cars. This included a third of Gen Z respondents, ages 12 to 15. Meanwhile, two-thirds of Baby Boomers (ages 51 to 64) said they would not trust a fully autonomous car.

Nearly one in three people surveyed said they would never buy a vehicle that did not have driver controls, while 16 percent of those polled said they would buy one as soon as they are available.

Many operational issues remain to be settled before semi-autonomous and autonomous cars are a common sight on the nation’s roads.

Author: Jacob Maslow

photo Oregon Department of Transportation

photo Oregon Department of Transportation

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