A Mix Of Human-Driven And Robot Cars On The Road Will Probably Be A Disaster

Photo: AP
Photo: AP

The supposed argument for autonomous vehicles is that they will cut back on fatalities stemming from car crashes by over 90 percent. That cheery-eyed view masks an important point: It’ll be a long time before—if ever—that roads will be totally dominated by robot cars. For a while, it’ll be a blend of manually-operated and autonomous vehicles. And according to a new study from the Governors Highway Safety Association, that’s a problem.

“The research and media attention given to autonomous vehicles often overlooks the safety implications that a mix of driver-operated and autonomous vehicles will bring,” said Dr. James Hedlund, a former senior official with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and co-author of the study, in a statement.

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“Unfortunately, ignoring the driver side of the equation may negate many of the expected safety benefits.”

The study is making a point that’s often missed in coverage of autonomous vehicles: There’s a ton of hype about what the technology can potentially accomplish, and not much of a measured approach to how we’ll get there. The study brought to mind a report from a couple years back about the cost of adding autonomous technology to a vehicle. That report said, by 2025, self-driving gadgets will add $7,000-$10,000 to a car’s sticker price; a decade later, it’d drop to about $3,000. Still a decent chunk a change. The point? It’s going to be sometime before a significant chunk of society is tooling around town in a robot car.

And that doubles back to this new study. Because the reality is, there’s going to be a blend of manually-operated and autonomous vehicles on the road for years to come. So the governor’s highway association suggests a few recommendations to deal with it:

  • Educate the public – States should develop education campaigns on the benefits and risks of AVs, how to operate vehicles with some autonomous features safely, and how to share the road with AVs.
  • Don’t rush into passing laws – States should wait until model laws and regulations have been developed to encourage a common structure and prevent a patchwork of inconsistent laws and regulations that may delay AV implementation.
  • Capture the data – States must identify vehicle automation levels in their registration, driver licensing and crash information systems. Police crash reports should be designed to help facilitate comprehensive and accurate data collection.
  • Engage law enforcement – States should include law enforcement in their planning, as AVs raise many issues for law enforcement, including officer safety, enforcement procedures and vehicle identification.
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“Drivers are often forgotten as we discuss autonomous vehicles, but cars driven by humans will be on the road for at least another generation,” said the association’s executive director, Jonathan Adkins, in a statement. “As human drivers begin to share the road with different levels of autonomous vehicles, states will need to stay informed, be patient and be flexible.”

Great points—especially for writers covering AV tech to take into consideration. For now, human driving still matters.

Senior Reporter, Jalopnik/Special Projects Desk

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DISCUSSION

Wouldn’t it be great to have something like a HOV lane but reserved for autonomous cars?

I think this would be awesome especially for long distance driving. As all cars are driven by a computer and all cars can communicate to know what is ahead this could become a really smart and efficient system.

For just long distance driving the cars could be tailgating each other with like 3ft distance to draft and as a result reduce fuel/battery consumption. Cars planning to merge can indicate this when approaching the lane so that other cars can already plan ahead and slowly create a gap for a smooth zipper merge without real braking. Same for cars leaving the lane where gaps can slowly be closed. ... like a beautiful endless train of cars with wagons joining and leaving smoothly.