The driverless future, coming soon to a car near you.

Self-driving cars are often associated with futuristic movies like iRobot, the Minority Report, Total Recall and Demolition Man. Recently, the reality of having autonomous vehicles on our roads has become more and more feasible with research and implementation like Google’s self-driving car project. Since the beginning of 2012, 17 states and the District of Columbia have debated legislation regarding authorizing self-driving cars on their roads. Only California, Florida, Nevada and Washington, D.C. have actually enacted laws, despite companies increased spending and resources invested in bringing these cars to our roads.

Background and issues on the technology. 

Self-driving cars are known as the transportation of the future. Our quickly evolving technology era has enabled autonomous vehicles (AVs) to be a very real aspect of our near future. The promise behind these cars is they can give back time you would have wasted driving, while also increasing public safety and travel accessibility.

Here is a graphic of basic features on an AV:

AV infographic

The potential advantages of AVs are plentiful and significant. Humans are inherently bad drivers due to distractions, stress, driving while impaired and simple human error. Driverless technology could enable people who are visually or otherwise physically impaired to have access to methods of transportation, that before, was incredibly complicated or impossible.  AVs on the road communicate with each other, ultimately resulting in less traffic congestion and saved time for travelers. The algorithms that dictate driving patterns and actions could also considerably increase safety on roads by decreasing human error and speed related collisions. Tesla CEO, Elon Musk, stated autopilot systems, like those on the Model X and Model S, would cut the rate of accidents by 50%. These algorithms have the capability to increase safety and efficiency, but exactly how they are programed to “think” is a highly controversial topic.

The first major challenge for algorithms is what happens when an AV is confronted with a moral dilemma. Researchers in one article argued to achieve safety, “manufacturers and regulators will need psychologists to apply the methods of experimental ethics to situations involving AVs and unavoidable harm”. Moral dilemmas are inherent issues of automobile travel and incredibly difficult situations for humans to deal with on an emotional level. Will manufacturers need to offer different versions of moral algorithms giving buyers the opportunity to choose whichever set of values coincides the most with their own? Will the buyer be the one to blame for the harmful consequences of an algorithm’s decisions? Moral aspects of AV algorithms are not only technological issues, but also issues with regulations for how cars are legally allowed to be programed to “behave” in these life and death situations.

These legal conundrums are not the only social challenges AVs will bring. These cars have the potential to completely change how cities are built and lived in. According to an article, AV has potential to impact urban environments through everything from sidewalks and curbs to streets to building designs to urban layouts to living patterns. Questions surrounding whether or not parking lots, road signs and traffic signals are necessary and how wide new roads need to be are other aspects up for debate.  Because AVs are computers and learning machines, they collect massive amounts of personal information making them susceptible to hacking. There also have been issues with AVs breaking traffic laws or “killing” themselves due to issues with programming. Here is a list of more pros and cons for autonomous vehicles.

As of now, 23 states have presented 53 pieces of legislation relating to self-driving vehicles, some of which are at odds with each other. Issues with regulations on cars also need to be addressed due to new prototypes of AV missing windshield wipers, steering wheels and gas and brake pedals. AV prototype

CNET’s Roadshow editor in chief, Tim Stevens, stated “We have six states right now that do allow autonomous cars to be tested on the road, but the legislation in those states are very different as you go from one to another. Some require special licenses, some require special equipment in the cars … and the only way these cars are going to get better is to test them on every road in the country.”

Lobbying, Regulations and Bills. 

AVs will experience similar issues that unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) are facing now, meaning legal issues around the technology will likely be resolved before AVs see widespread use and their safe implementation. “Safe implementation” means not only are the devices working correctly and not going to harm us physically, but also solving personal issues like privacy protections. This technology has the capability to greatly increase safety, efficiency and profitability in our world, but could also compromise people’s personal information and livelihoods.

Google, Ford and Uber have created a giant lobbying group for self-driving cars, the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets, whose purpose is advocating for autonomous driving. David Strickland, the group’s counsel and spokesperson, stated “Self-driving vehicle technology will make America’s roadways safer and less congested. The best path for this innovation is to have one clear set of federal standards, and the Coalition will work with policymakers to find the right solutions that will facilitate the deployment of self-driving vehicles.” Many states are slowly attempting to understand what these vehicles are and how and where they should be implemented on the road.

Below is a widget of some of the bills from around the county about AV ranging from Minnesota’s  SF2569 to establish a task force to Washington’s HB 2106 to define specified testing areas:

Tennessee introduced a bill that would make it the first state in the US to codify the definition of autonomy and expand the definition of a driver to include that a human isn’t required to control a vehicle with SB 1561. Rhode Island introduced S2514 which stipulates that the person “who causes the vehicle to engage, regardless of whether the person is physically present in the vehicle while the vehicle is operating” would be considered the driver.

Hawaii introduced SB 630 allowing a person who possesses a valid Hawaii driver license to operate an autonomous motor vehicle that employs autonomous technology, defines autonomous vehicle and autonomous technology, requires certain safety features and specifies certain conditions for safety testing. Georgia proposed SB 113 to create a new class of motor vehicles to be known as autonomous vehicles along with similar aspects of Hawaii’s bill and also repeals conflicting laws. California introduced AB 1592 to permit self-driving cars “not equipped with a steering wheel, a brake pedal, an accelerator, or an operator inside the vehicle”.

It is clear that although some people may be ready for amazing technological innovation, getting bills passed to enable their safe, useful integration into our society is a whole other battle. There are many amazing benefits to having autonomous vehicles roaming our roads, but also very real, scary dangers. I believe it is equally as important to have the rules and regulations along with the testing and research to support and understand AVs as much as possible before we attempt to fully integrate them into our culture and society. This will only come with time, innovation and lobbying. I look forward to watching this happen with autonomous vehicles and unmanned arial vehicles as I see their true potential to exponentially help our society and way of life.


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Photography enthusiast, creative ambitions, always smile.

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