More and more semi-autonomous cars cruise on the road every day, and yet the more time I spend testing these driver-assisted vehicles, the more I think that full autonomy may never, ever happen.
A harsh look on all of this was first laid out all the way back in the 1960s, at the start of the first revolution in regulating vehicles and making them safer. Back in the decade that launched consumer product safety with books like Silent Spring and Unsafe At Any Speed, American regulators first started talking about cars not as a technology or a means of transportation, but as a public health crisis. Cars are, from the perspective of safety, a disease. They’re an outbreak run wild, killing tens of thousands of Americans every year—and the leading cause of death for teens, as noted by the Center for Disease Control.
For us to combat this disease, we need to reduce the number of fatal car accidents on the road, and there aren’t a ton of possible ways of making that happen. America’s infrastructure is going to shit, and we’re certainly not better and more attentive drivers than we were in the past. It sure looks like the way to reduce deaths is to make cars safer, and the most death-proof car ought to be one that drives itself and never crashes.
Yet there are other ways to bring down traffic deaths than robot cars. There are ways that we have access to right now, not dangling perpetually ahead of us—things like making our roads safer, designing cities better, building safer conventional cars and creating smarter crash tests. (Even better driver education would go a long way, in theory, though in practice that’s tough to implement too.)
This is leaving aside that most people today may not even want a fully autonomous car, were one available, as studies have shown.
Now, we’ve seen huge strides in getting cars closer and closer to this mark over even the past few years. A new Tesla, Volvo, Mercedes or Cadillac off the showroom floor will be able to, with varying degrees of competence, cruise down the highway without you steering the car. The vehicle will stay in its lane, hold whatever speed you desire and brake if someone stops short ahead of you. It feels very much like the car is driving itself.
But if 2017 has proven anything in the world of cars, it’s that whooshing along without incident in one lane falls far short of what you can comprehensively call “driving.”
Just the other week, a “fully autonomous” bus took to the road in Las Vegas and almost instantly got involved in a crash. Somebody backed up into the little autono-bus and the bus’ computer brain couldn’t sufficiently think to back up out of the way. The crash wasn’t the driverless bus’ fault! It was that of a human in a human-driven car. But it couldn’t do all of the minute little jobs that a competent human should be able to manage.
As another example, Tesla’s Autopilot system is smart enough to execute lane changes on its own. You signal like you’re going to change lanes and the Tesla will slide one lane over. That is, it will if the Tesla doesn’t see any car in its way, even one hiding in your blind spot. But the Tesla has its own blind spots.
It wasn’t long ago that somebody died behind the wheel of a Tesla on Autopilot, crashing into a truck that the Tesla couldn’t see. The driver was trusting on his car to keep him safe. It had saved his life before in a different scenario.
But in this over-reliance on a driver-assisted car, we saw how little we expect unexpected edge cases. We’d all be safer and happier if all cars even had current semi-autonomous tech, sure, letting cars take over in our most bored, texting, straight highway traffic moments. But the barriers to full autonomy may be altogether too high.
Autonomous cars and human-driven cars may never be able to mix. What then? Do we make dedicated lanes for self-driving cars? How distinct do they need to be? If we need them to be physically blocked off from human traffic, do we really have the money to build that kind of autonomous roadway network? We’d basically be building a new train system at that point. And how do we phase out the last of the human-driven cars? Can we ever do that?
By then I’m starting to wonder how much putting that money into repairing our current road system would be for reducing driver deaths. Fix all the bad intersections, the undivided two-lanes, and so on. A full rollout of driverless cars for all car owners is almost impossibly far away. There are plenty of cars on the road today that still don’t even have airbags or ABS, let alone a full suite of cameras and sensors.
So if you can’t mix driverless cars with human-driven cars, do you really ban human driving? Car companies have talked about it, sure, but it’s wildly unprecedented and it puts an incredibly strong amount of pressure on those without enough money to replace their cars for something safer, as Jalopnik’s EIC Patrick George pointed out.
There is a lot of momentum leading us towards autonomous cars, and it feels like we’re on some kind of cusp with them, but I hate to say that other technologies have sat in the waiting room of reality for longer. Virtual reality has been about to happen since the early ‘90s. Yet it stuttered under the weight of its glowing promotions, never able to promise as much as everyone hoped it would. VR sets cost too much and offered too little. The rigs were expensive, and the content was lacking. Many applications of VR today are downright embarrassing.
And self-driving cars have been in this cusp for longer than you think. Delphi did an autonomous cross-country drive in 2015, but so did a pair of academics in 1995. Full autonomy is the future today, just as it was 22 years ago. At a certain point you have to wonder if this is never going to happen, like flying cars, perpetually promised to be a few years away.
Since 2013, car companies have argued that fully autonomous cars would be in showrooms by the end of the decade, but in the past few years (when we’ve seen autonomous car testing in full swing) those promises have looked shakier and shakier. Ford, for instance, told Forbes in 2015 to expect full autonomy by 2020, but it couched it by saying these cars would probably be restricted to defined areas. A year later in 2016, Ford announced that it would have fully-autonomous cars by 2021, but it would just for geo-fenced ride-sharing or ride-hailing.
It’s time to seriously think about a future where complete autonomy never comes to us as we imagine it, where you don’t have roads solely occupied by self-driving cars talking to each other, whizzing through intersections at 50 miles an hour.
The best case scenario I can imagine has large cities banning cars from their inner downtowns with limited-application self-driving cabs whisking people around instead. I feel like we’re only a few more terrorist attacks away from urban car bans as it is. The worst case scenario I can imagine has that flopping, too, if enough people hack into these cars and hijack them, too, as I wrote back in 2014. Beyond that, you can have cars with glorified cruise control as we do now, only across the board, not that that alleviates much of anybody’s more grim hacking fears.
I’m not saying that promoting driverless cars and promoting safer roads today are mutually exclusive, but there is a lot that we can do at the moment that we should be taking more seriously. We’re probably not going to become better drivers through schooling. (We’ve been trying to make drivers pay attention to the road ever since people started driving.) But we can force ourselves into become safer. We can mandate more and better crash tests. We can stop regulating every individual aspect of a car for safety and go back to a holistic approach. That’s what’s holding back, for instance, American car headlights from being much better than terrible. And that’s what lost us seatbelt interlocks back in the 1970s. Hell, simply getting everyone in all cars belted would cut car fatalities in half.
How much do we keep waiting on this dream and how much do we keep supporting making our infrastructure better, our laws stronger and our drivers safer?