Why Autonomous Cars Aren't On The Road Yet

February 08, 2016

Ever since we studied for our driver’s test, we’ve been told to keep our eyes ahead and our hands on the wheel at the ideal “10 and 2” position. However, with new self-driving cars right around the bend, a hands-off approach is in the near feature.

Toyota, Google and Tesla have safely tested self-driving cars on expressways and public roads, with Google’s car driving more than one million miles alone. Tesla’s Chief Executive, Elon Musk, recently announced a new autopilot software team at Tesla, and he told The Guardian that full automation within Tesla’s cars should be possible within three years. “Its beta autopilot system is intended to be an advanced cruise-control system capable of changing lanes and navigating obstacles while collecting data to help with the development of further automated driving features,” according to The Guardian. While Google is said to lead the self-driving charge, with this news, Tesla definitely is on its way to becoming a forerunner. One in 10 cars are estimated to be self-driving by 2035, according to IHS, while 14 states are working on regulations regarding the testing and selling of self-driving cars. But, only four states have adopted laws regulating testing.

However, there are still many factors to consider before self-driving cars could hit the road. The human element is undeniable, and the act of driving, ideally, helps keep a driver awake and alert during long trips. A study by Stanford proves that keeping a driver awake is one of the major feats for self-driving cars to overcome. In fact, in the study, 13 of 48 students monitoring a self-driving car from behind the wheel began to fall asleep. Stanford also tested the method of keeping the driver awake with the use of a tablet or videos. Three students began to fall asleep, even with that distraction. Another potential answer to this issue is the theory of driver swapping, in which the car signals the human to take over by slowing down its speed. But, studies show that it took people at least five seconds to pull over.

Self-driving cars can’t yet make consequential decisions for the driver, process variables quickly, communicate externally or overcome government obstacles. So, if a dog dashes in front of a car where the driver isn’t exactly thinking for the car, the car would in theory have to make a human-like decision, i.e., auto-breaking or swerving out of its lane. Would it swerve off the road and possibly harm pedestrians or swerve into another lane and risk collision? Who would then legally be at fault for the accident: the car’s manufacturer, the car software programmer, the owner of the self-driving car, or someone else?

A driverless car also can’t signal like a driver in a manual vehicle. For example, when a car approaches a four-way stop the same time as another, eye contact or a hand wave typically is relied on to signal who’s going to process. But, a self-driving car wouldn’t be able to interact in the same fashion.

President Obama has taken an interest in self-driving car research. He, along with his Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, announced in his last State of the Union address as president a new investment in the industry to the tune of $4 billion. Over the next 10 years, the funds will help test projects that can help get self-driving cars on the road faster.

However, the bottom line is that self-driving car technology has a way to go before its ready for the open road. For information on vehicle accident reconstruction, click here.

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