Think the roads are ready for autonomous vehicles? Think again.
Autonomous vehicles, driverless cars, and autopilot are in the spotlight again. Tesla said today that one of its cars had crashed in Beijing while “autopilot” mode was on. The driver says that the sales staff sold the function as “self-driving.” The crash comes months after a fatal accident in Florida between a Tesla Model S and a tractor trailer, which increased pressure on auto industry executives and regulators to tighten rules on automated vehicle technology. Earlier this year there was a crash between google’s self-driving car and a bus. Although the technology is improving, we are not at a point to where drivers can be replaced, a stance highlighted by the crashes this year.
On May 7th, a Tesla Model S with the Autopilot system activated, was involved in its first fatal crash where the Autopilot was active. Tesla informed the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) of the incident, which is now investigating. A tractor trailer drove across a divided highway perpendicular to the Model S, and neither the driver nor the car noticed the big rig or the trailer and brakes were not applied. Tesla CEO Elon Musk said the vehicle’s radar did not help in this case because it “tunes out what looks like an overhead road sign to avoid false braking events.” In defense, Tesla says Autopilot has been used for more than 130 million miles, and that on average, a fatality occurs every 94 million miles in the US and every 60 million miles worldwide.
Some autonomous vehicles experts have criticized Tesla’s Autopilot feature, with a Volvo engineer saying the system “gives you the impression that it’s doing more than it is.” The concern is that drivers are led to believe the car can handle any situation, and it is clear that is not the case–the driver must remain in control of the car and responsible for the vehicle, even with Autopilot active. Other automakers working on similar systems to Autopilot (i.e. GM with Super Cruise) are only testing the new feature, but have not deployed them. Volvo has said that it will take full liability for all its cars when they are operating in autonomous mode, and plans to launch a limited trial of its autonomous Drive Me technology next year.
On February 14th, 2016, Google’s Self-Driving Car was involved in its first car crash when the autonomous car changed lanes and put itself in the path of an oncoming bus. If vehicles are to evolve from some of today’s automated safety functions to fully autonomous modes of transportation, it is clear that road infrastructure must also evolve in order to protect occupant safety in complicated traffic situations.
Henry Petroski, an author and leading engineer specializing in failure analysis, states that
“cities will have to maintain everything from complex intersections to lane markings to the specifications expected by vehicle software designers. Without a city’s commitment to certain standards, self-driving autos might freeze in place on streets lacking clear lane markings. Similarly, unmanned vehicles might proceed at speed through an intersection where a stop sign has been removed”.
Adverse winter weather is another challenge for autonomous cars. A report dedicated to self-driving and connected cars by the University of Michigan on March 23rd, 2016 showed that 70 percent of drivers live in snowy regions in the America. Therefore, it is imperative that the sensors used for the operation of autonomous cars work in frozen conditions, and when the car or infrastructure are covered in snow.
Technology advances much quicker in the automotive industry than with government infrastructure projects. It is clear that significant government funding and coordination with software development, combined with the necessary time to roll out the infrastructure changes, will be required before autonomous vehicles become mainstream.
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