Self-Driving Cars: When?

It was only twelve years ago that the Department of Defense sponsored the first 150 mile autonomous vehicle race in the California desert, with a prize of $1 million.  Fifteen vehicles, including entries from CalTech and Carnegie Mellon, started the race.

None finished.  The best performer went only 11 miles before breaking down. 

The progress since then has been amazing.  Everyone from Audi to Volvo has announced self-driving cars, and Google is already running a fleet of autonomous vehicles around their California campus. 

Some of the key technologies are now commercially available: parallel parking assistance, adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping support, and--for the Silicon Valley elite--Tesla’s autopilot.  And last month, the Federal government promised to spend $4 billion in autonomous vehicle research over the next decade. 

No wonder that, in nearly every speech I give these days, someone wants to know when they’ll get their driverless car.

That’s hard to answer.  The promise is great--most obviously, self-driving cars in which the driver becomes a passenger, free to watch videos or catch up on work without paying any attention to the road.  Even better: a world in which you don’t even need to own a car. There will be large fleets of self-driving cars and you simply summon one to your front door whenever you want a ride.

It is, however, not a straight line to that future.  For starters, of course, traffic laws need to be changed and insurance responsibilities must be addressed.  

There are also, inevitably, human factors.  Cautious autonomous vehicles may find it technically difficult to share the roads with unpredictable, risk-taking humans.  Consider a busy intersection with four-way stop signs.  A law-abiding driverless car could be stuck for hours as impatient human drivers aggressively cut in front of it.  

The early days of the automobile itself were marked by enough collisions with horses that some cities declared “automobile only” streets.  It’s not unlikely that by the mid-Twenties, we’ll also see “smart vehicle lanes” in which autonomous cars communicate with each other, allowing both higher speeds and greater safety.  The photo at left shows a Swedish experiment in which four different vehicles are locked together electronically, moving at high speed yet only a few feet apart.  

Finally, one of the biggest dilemmas is already on the horizon.  California legislators want to make self-driving cars legal--as long as there is always a licensed and insured human at the wheel, able to take control in emergencies.  

Sounds like a sensible first step.  But how do you make sure the human is actually paying attention?  

We already have trouble forcing drivers to pay attention to the road when there are digital distractions in the car.  A “driver” in some future automated car is likely to be deep into watching, say, Season 18 of The Walking Dead when the emergency happens--not exactly ready to spring into action.  

Self-driving cars?  Most certainly.  But weaving these wonders into the existing fabric of society may be almost as difficult as the technology itself.