Self-Driving Cars: How Soon Is Soon Enough?

Some observers tout autonomous (self-driving) vehicles by claiming that a computer is “simply a better driver than a human,” as a recent Time magazine article put it. This is not true now and may never be true. Safe driving, the kind carried out on a daily basis by millions of people, is a highly skilled practice honed over time through years of practical experience. Perhaps nothing better illustrates this fact than the recent tragedy in Tempe, Arizona, where a pedestrian crossing a street outside of a marked crosswalk was struck and killed by an Uber vehicle operating in autonomous driving mode. An alert human driver would have had no problem in identifying the potential danger.

Autonomous vehicles are being developed to address unsafe practices—that is, driving under the influence of a host of impairments. The human toll from unsafe driving is enormous, resulting in roughly 37,000 deaths every year in the United States, so the massive high-tech effort to produce self-driving cars is justified. But it must be done in recognition of and compatible with safe driving practices and the people who value the freedom—and accept the responsibility—that driving entails.

Driving is a complex social process whereby individuals come to understand the driving environment through repetition and through experience with other drivers and conditions. As such, even when a number of unforeseen contingencies arise, drivers who are fully engaged are able to adjust and navigate the road safely. But not everyone is equally skilled at driving and avoiding crashes. The figure below illustrates differences based on age and gender. Young males and the older generation are most vulnerable to fatal automobile crashes.

All age groups and genders, however, are susceptible to a collection of impairments that can make driving less safe. In addition to testosterone-fueled teenage boys and cognitively impaired seniors, there are inebriated revelers, fatigued drivers, distracted teens and millennials texting, and individuals with mood swings, including rage. Better technology to counter the effects of unsafe driving is most welcome.

Efforts to improve the safety of the vehicle, of course, have been longstanding and continuous. Seatbelts, airbags, and vehicle design have all advanced safety over the decades, even if the automakers themselves haven’t always been at the forefront of the advances, as illustrated by Ralph Nader’s epic battle with General Motors, documented in his book Unsafe at Any Speed. Validation, perhaps, took place in 2013 when the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) declared motor vehicle safety one of the “ten great public health achievements of the 20th century.” To justify this award the CDC noted that the annual death rate attributable to motor-vehicle crashes had declined from 18 per 100 million vehicle miles traveled in 1925 to 1.7 per 100 million vehicle miles traveled in 1997—a 90% decrease. But this statistical jujitsu cannot protect society from the enormous carnage that still takes place on roads and the realization that society must do better.

The current level of bipartisan political support for autonomous vehicles in this age of political confrontation is remarkable, bridging political parties and administrations, legislators and agency officials. The downside of this enthusiasm is a kaleidoscope of state and local regulations covering autonomous vehicle testing and operation, creating confusion for the car industry. Establishing a federal standard would streamline commercialization and provide automakers with greater certainty. Toward this end, the US House of Representatives in September 2017 passed the Self-Drive Act, calling on the Department of Transportation to promulgate new regulations and safety standards under which self-driving cars could operate. The legislation had earlier been cleared by the House Committee on Energy and Commerce by a 54-0 vote. The bill would also permit up to 100,000 autonomous vehicles to be tested on public roads even if the testing violated state and local laws or regulations. The Senate has been holding hearings on the subject, but is reconsidering legislation in light of the Tempe accident and other Tesla accidents that occurred in vehicles operating in “autopilot” mode.

Independent of federal legislation, in September 2017 the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration published what it called a policy framework for development of automated driving systems, A Vison for Safety, which set forth its desired path toward putting self-driving vehicles on the roads. The document builds on an initial effort undertaken by the Obama administration and seeks to assure automakers that neither federal, state, nor local government would produce a plethora of regulations inhibiting testing and commercialization.

Although a strong case can and is being made for the public benefits derived from the move to autonomy, the more powerful impetus is the interests of high-tech Silicon Valley firms. As noted, driving is a repetitive experience, and thus can, at least in theory, be programmed to avoid human errors. The transformation of automobiles from mechanical devices to programmed machines run by software has been under way for some time as various computer-aided features have been added to cars. Autonomous vehicles are simply the logical extension of this trend.

Existing automakers are brought into this arena through the fear of disruption of their preferred business model. With the exception of Tesla, Silicon Valley firms do not seek to become independent automakers. Mutual interests, therefore, have led to the development of alliances between information technology firms and existing automakers.

And lest it be forgotten, the primary goal of computer and software companies has been to attract more eyeballs to the many screens sold to consumers. Most states have passed legislation to prohibit texting while driving, recognizing the dangers inherent in divided attention. Autonomous vehicles have the potential to turn this completely around by prohibiting human driving while texting—a result that would please Silicon Valley.

A recent study by the Brookings Institution listed 160 autonomous vehicle business deals struck between 2014 and 2017, with a total value of approximately $80 billion. It projected continued rapid growth. Presumably there are early-mover competitive advantages to bringing autonomy along quickly. The initial focus will be on creating autonomous vehicles for commercial ride-sharing fleets. Waymo, the autonomous vehicle program from Google, plans to have self-driving vehicles on Arizona roads in 2018. General Motors has announced its goal of having fully autonomous cars operating in major cities by 2019. Ford’s plan for introducing commercial fleets is scheduled for 2021. In fact, a host of global automobile companies and their affiliated high-tech partners are targeting the 2020-21 time frame for commercialization.

A case can be made that given the enormous number of casualties taking place on roads today, full vehicle automation should be supported and fostered as quickly as possible. A recent Rand Corporation report concluded that hundreds of thousands of lives could be saved if autonomous vehicles were quickly introduced, even though they are clearly not yet accident-proof. I believe a more compelling case can be made for taking a more measured and incremental approach to automation. The strongest argument for a go-slow—or at least go-slower—approach is that the public has yet to join the automation bandwagon. The dash to self-driving is fundamentally driven by competition between giant corporations, not by public safety advocates. Drivers are not demanding that they be allowed to take their hands off the wheel. Perhaps they should, but surveys have shown a public that is either skeptical or fearful of safety claims based on advanced automation. What this means is that the automobile industry faces the potential of a severe public backlash when autonomous vehicles come to market.

A 2017 survey by the Pew Research Center revealed that more than half of the US public is worried about the development of driverless cars. A recent poll conducted by the American Automobile Association revealed even more of the public fearful (nearly 75%) after the well-publicized accidents cited above. To be sure, there are some groups—men, the better educated, and millennials—who are less worried than others. But the differences are more of degree than kind. The majority of drivers share a fear of being in a self-driving car as well as a reluctance to relinquish the joy of driving.

Fear is not irrational. As evidenced by the Tempe tragedy, crashes will take place in the early days of automation. Fully autonomous vehicles come with a host of advanced sensing technologies, such as GPS, radar, and lasers. Yet the ability of the sensors to operate perfectly in all weather conditions remains problematical. Most significant, the software or algorithms on which driving will be based are still developing, and further testing is needed to build in responses to a wider variety of situations. A fully supportive public would respond to unforeseen accidents with a shrug and an expression of faith that things will improve in the future. The skeptical public of today, however, is likely to experience a strong case of “betrayal aversion,” a repudiation of the technology as oversold and underperforming. Such a reaction could set back commercialization of autonomous vehicles for decades. It could also feed into “techlash,” a reaction against the encroachment of large Silicon Valley firms and artificial intelligence into people’s lives. With this in mind, several public safety organizations, including Consumer Reports, the Consumer Federation of America, and Advocates for Highway Safety, have come out against congressional legislation that hastens the commercial development of autonomous vehicles in the absence of proven safety. And although politicians are now eager to extol the wonders of technological development, it will be interesting to see if they now leap to the industry’s defense in light of the recent crashes in Tempe and elsewhere.

Developing a more measured approach to commercialization of autonomous vehicles requires cognizance of the differing stages of autonomous driving. SAE International, a professional and standard-setting association of engineers and related technical experts in mobility industries, has produced a widely published chart setting forth six separate stages of autonomy: no automation (level 0), driver assistance (level 1), partial automation (level 2), conditional automation (level 3), high automation (level 4), and full automation (level 5). The levels are meant to convey a spectrum of human-technology interaction with full human control over vehicle safety at the beginning and full technology control at the end.

Surveys have shown that the public is supportive of technologies that aid drivers in the safe operation of a vehicle. Consumer Reports magazine recently found high satisfaction levels (65-80+%) with driver-assistance technologies such as adaptive cruise control, forward-collision warning, lane-keeping assistance, blind-spot warning, and emergency braking. Level 1 automation entails the introduction of one of these technologies into the vehicle. Level 2 entails the introduction of virtually all of these technologies and is available as an option in most new cars. But at level 2, control of the vehicle still remains the responsibility of the driver.

The automobile industry could make these technologies more foolproof and provide them as standard equipment in all makes and models in fairly short order, thereby reaping near-term safety benefits and, at the same time, building confidence among the public in a longer-term transfer of vehicle control. These active safety features can serve as logical stepping-stones to greater vehicle autonomy. A survey by the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers has shown that drivers whose vehicles have at least two advanced driver-assistance technologies view the move to full autonomy more favorably than those whose vehicles have none. Expanded introduction of driver-assistance technologies could also have significant public safety implications, as several studies have forecast that their widespread use could yield a reduction of nearly 10,000 fatalities per year. At current and traditional rates of introduction and public acceptance of these safety features, however, it may take another 25 years before these technologies are present in virtually all registered vehicles.

Significant public safety benefits arise, therefore, with initial moves to automation long before reaching levels 3-5, where control over driving becomes largely the responsibility of the vehicle and where public concerns become manifest. In order for the public to gain more confidence in the movement to autonomous vehicles, it may be useful for public officials to focus on levels 1 and 2, with progress toward further development being contingent on greater proof of safety claims.

Current automotive plans, however, envision level 3 and level 4 driving in the near future. Level 3 would allow hands-off driving, with the proviso that humans remain fully attentive and prepared to take over in the event the vehicle sends an alert message. Unfortunately, we have already seen fatal crashes in level 2 when driver attention wanes over time, and in level 3 testing in Arizona. Moving directly to commercial level 3 would exacerbate this tendency and raise doubts as to whether drivers can reasonably be expected to perform smooth driving transitions under split responsibilities.

Level 4, taking place without humans in the driving seat, can conceivably work safely in carefully restricted settings. This is where companies eyeing commercial fleets, offering ride-sharing without a paid driver, are eager to begin. Dangers arise, however, when profit-seeking firms seek to expand the geographical boundaries of their operation, as they inevitably will.

Discussion thus far has revolved around the question of when drivers should be able to purchase and operate autonomous vehicles. Yet a more fundamental question is if these vehicles will ever be open to personal ownership. Some advocates of autonomous vehicles point out that personally owned automobiles sit idle 95% of the time. They envision a wholesale transfer of vehicles from private to communal or commercial ownership. On an efficiency basis alone, shared vehicles, used more intensively, would make sense. It may also be the only way to pay for what could be the high production costs of these vehicles. It could also work to reduce congestion and bring about desired energy savings and carbon dioxide reductions. And certainly it is consistent with what is perceived to be the younger generation’s reduced ardor for driving, compared with that of previous generations.

Still, the removal of both operational control and ownership of vehicles would constitute a momentous change in people’s daily lives—and would need public validation before proceeding. The sense of personal freedom and identity that accompanies private ownership of vehicles has not disappeared completely. A recent poll indicated that four out of five US residents believe that people should always have the option to drive themselves. If autonomous vehicles will serve only a limited market, such as older adults or the infirm, safety benefits would be diminished considerably. Any attempt by government to impose or even lead “transit as a service,” however, would face fierce opposition. Since level 5 driving is still many years, or even decades, away, society has time to debate the issue productively.

The movement toward autonomous vehicles, either privately or communally owned, is a hugely important development with the potential to save hundreds of thousands of lives in the future. But it should not be moved forward through technological determinism or in a hasty dash for commercial profit. A wary public, which largely engages in safe driving and may be reluctant to cede control to machines, will fixate on any technological failures to the detriment of the long-term viability of this movement to address unsafe driving. A slow-but-sure strategy to commercialization makes the most sense for now.

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Cite this Article

Barkenbus, Jack. “Self-Driving Cars: How Soon Is Soon Enough?” Issues in Science and Technology 34, no. 4 (Summer 2018).

Vol. XXXIV, No. 4, Summer 2018