It has long been predicted that fully autonomous (self-driving) cars will someday be not just a reality, but the standard way that people get around. Futurists and technology enthusiasts have been making these predictions since at least the 1950s. And in the past decade or so, we have seen numerous tech companies trying to rush self-driving technology to market.
The promise of automated vehicles is that they will be safer because they will remove the element of human error. But that hasn’t been the case so far as we transition toward full automation. In fact, partial automation already available in vehicles may actually be increasing the risk of car accidents, while the early tests of fully autonomous vehicles have resulted in some tragic deaths.
Uber decides to sell self-driving car division
In December 2020, news outlets reported that rideshare company Uber has decided to sell the self-driving car research unit that it founded just four years earlier. Advanced Technologies Group will now be owned and operated by a startup that plans to continue the work.
Uber’s decision to sell could be tacit admission that the dream of safe self-driving cars is not as close as many would like to think. In fact, one of ATG’s biggest failures came in 2018 when one of its self-driving cars struck and killed a pedestrian during tests in Arizona. The human driver serving as a backup was distracted by watching media on her phone. Investigators also blamed Uber for software limitations and a decision to turn off emergency brakes on the vehicle.
Partial automation may be causing human drivers to disengage
In the example above, a human driver allowed a fatal pedestrian accident to occur because she was not ready to take control of the vehicle when the situation became dangerous. This same problem seems to be occurring when drivers take advantage of the partial automation features offered in newer vehicles today. These features include things like lane-centering technology and adaptive cruise control, which can help cars maintain a preset following distance in addition to preset speed.
In a recent study released by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, researchers found that when volunteer drivers were first given cars with these partial automation features in them, they initially stayed very engaged with the driving process. But over the course of about a month, as they became comfortable with the features, drivers were much more likely to give in to distraction and to disengage while behind the wheel.
Such behaviors could easily lead to a spike in distracted driving accidents and deaths. Drivers too often use technology as a substitute for personal responsibility (rather than as a safety supplement), and automakers haven’t been good about educating car buyers on the limits of such technology.
Injuries and deaths may increase before we see benefits
The transition to automation in driving is perhaps the biggest change ever made in automotive technology. While every major transition inevitably involves mistakes and risks, we need to be clear about how much risk we are willing to accept and who will actually be put in harm’s way.