Posted: February 22, 2017
We have all heard reports of Google’s self-driving cars navigating the streets of California’s “Googleplex.” We have also seen reports of Delphi Automotive’s Roadrunner autonomous vehicle completing a cross-country trip from San Francisco to New York City. Of course, the University of Michigan recently built a 32-acre facility dedicated to self-driving car testing—called “Mcity”—to enable automakers to test autonomous vehicles without risk to the public.
Are autonomous vehicles upon us? How long until our roadways are swarmed with these driverless drones? According to a recent article from Tech Times, the answer depends on who you ask: “Some predict the fully autonomous vehicles will be on the road as early as the end of 2016, while others say it won’t happen in our lifetime.” The article quotes a policy analyst from libertarian advocacy group Niskanen Center who believes “it’s more likely that [fully autonomous vehicles will be on the road] within the next couple of years, probably by the year 2025.”
Of course, as with most things, autonomy is a difference in degree, not kind. According to a statement by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the autonomy of a vehicle rests on a continuum ranging from “No-Automation” (Level 0) to “Full Self-Driving Automation” (Level 4).
You will be hard-pressed to find a “Full Self-Driving” vehicle on the road today. Nevertheless, the progression to full vehicle automation is already in full effect; many vehicles today are equipped with cruise control, automatic braking, and lane keeping functions—“Function-specific Automation.”
The NHTSA’s five levels of automation are as follows:
Level 0 – No-Automation, where “[t]he driver is in complete and sole control of the primary vehicle controls at all times . . .”
Level 1 – Function-specific Automation, where “[t]he driver has overall control . . . but can choose to cede limited authority over a primary control (as in adaptive cruise control) . . .”
Level 2 – Combined Function Automation, which “involves automation of at least two primary control functions designed to work in unison to relieve the driver of control of those functions . . .”
Level 3 – Limited Self-Driving Automation, which “enable[s] the driver to cede full control of all safety-critical functions under certain traffic or environmental conditions and in those conditions to rely heavily on the vehicle to monitor for changes in those conditions requiring transition back to driver control.”
Level 4 – Full Self-Driving Automation, where “[t]he vehicle is designed to perform all safety-critical driving functions and monitor roadway conditions for an entire trip.”
As we inevitably work our way through this continuum toward Full Self-Driving Automation, ceding control of our vehicles to computers and GPS systems, our society will need to resolve a number of cost-benefit analyses; both economic and ethical.
Will self-driving cars make our roads safer? Who will take responsibility for motor vehicle collisions that cause personal injuries? At what point during our transition from Level 0 to Level 4 does a motor vehicle accident become a product of computer malfunction, and not human error? This blog entry marks the beginning of a series of entries that will explore these, and other, issues related to the introduction and eventual mainstreaming of autonomous vehicles.
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