Unlike Babylon 5, this scenario is no longer a page out of science fiction. It’s coming soon, faster than many imagine. That said, the story of the self-driving car still has a few unfinished chapters — chapters in which the human driver still has an important role to play. Yes, that means you.
As I’ve discussed in previous posts, the fully autonomous car is a work in progress. In fact, some of the technologies that will enable cars to drive themselves (adaptive cruise control, forward collision avoidance, etc.) are already in place. Moreover, research suggests that these technologies can, among other things, improve traffic flow and reduce accidents. But does that mean you will soon be able to sit back, close your eyes, and let the car do everything? Not quite.
Evolution, not revolution
If you ask me, Thilo Koslowski of Gartner hit the bull's eye when he said that self-driving cars will go through three evolutionary phases: from automated to autonomous to unmanned. Until we reach the endpoint, we should pay heed to the words of Toyota's Jim Pisz: autonomous does not mean driverless.
If planes can do it…
If only life were so simple. For one thing, automakers will have to make autonomous cars affordable — doable but not easy. They’ll also have to negotiate a variety of legal hurdles. And in any case, driving and flying have less in common than you might think.
When you drive, you must remain alert on a continuous basis. Lose your attention for a second, and you stand a good chance of hitting something or somebody. The same doesn't always hold true in flight. When a plane is cruising at 30,000 feet along a proscribed flight path, the pilot can avert his or her attention for 5 seconds and incur little chance of hitting anything. In comparison, a driver who becomes distracted for 5 seconds is hell on wheels.
And, of course, auto-pilot doesn’t mean pilot-less. As Ricky Hudi of Audi points out, pilots may rely on autopilot, but they still retain full responsibility for flying the plane. So just because your car is on auto-pilot doesn’t mean you can watch YouTube on your tablet. Bummer, I know.
An alarming solution
Source: Modern Mechanix blog (and yes, that should
It seems that someone anticipated this problem in the early 50s when they invented “alarming glasses” — take a gander at the accompanying photo from the August 1951 issue of Modern Mechanix.
Scoff if you will, but a kinder and gentler form of this technology is exactly what autonomous cars need. No, I'm not suggesting that scientists find a better way to glue wires to eyelids. But I am saying that, until cars become fully and safely autonomous, drivers will need to pay attention — after all, it’s tempting to drift off when the car is doing all the work. And, indeed, technologies to keep drivers alert are already being developed.
Pre-warned means prepared
Mind you, it isn’t enough to keep the driver alert; the car may also need to issue “pre-warnings” for when the driver needs to take over. For instance, let’s say driving conditions become too challenging for the car’s autonomous mode to handle — these could heavy rain, a street filled with pedestrians, or an area where lane markers are obscured by snow. In that case, the car can’t wait until it can no longer drive itself before alerting the driver, for the simple reason that the driver may simply take too long to assess the situation. The car will need to provide ample warning ahead of time.
The more, the better
That cars will become autonomous is inevitable. In fact, the more autonomous, the better, as far I'm concerned. Research already suggests that technologies for enabling autonomous driving can, in many cases, do a better job of avoiding accidents and improving traffic flow than human drivers. They also seem to do better at things like parallel parking — a task that has caused more than one student driver to fail a driving test.
But does this all mean that, as a driver, I can stop paying attention? Not in the near future. But someday.