Mustang cyborg

Increasing innovation from automakers and tech companies is driving policy that dictates driverless vehicle automation.

Driver-error contributes to over 90% of typical traffic collisions, yet a study by the University of Michigan finds that accident rates for driverless vehicles are twice as high. Although they are rarely found to be at fault (most crashes being caused by inattentive or aggressive drivers hitting the cars from behind), some question whether autonomous vehicles (AV) can successfully merge with the societal, and sometimes aggressive, human manner of driving.

It is predicted that there may be up to 10 million self-driving cars on the road by 2020 and Uber plans on automating its entire fleet by 2030. Tech giants Google, NVIDIA, MobilEye and Intel are in the passenger seat preparing software or other technology for the fleets. Ford alone is investing $1 billion in Argo AI, a self-driving AV startup founded by former employees of Uber and Google’s self-driving teams.

This progress has prompted the U.S. Transportation Department to issue a policy addressing this technology boom and establishing a set of autonomous levels to allow for greater transparency. Ranging from Level-0: a car which requires constant human control to Level-5: vehicles that require no human help, some of these features may be currently assisting you on your commute. If you have purchased a vehicle recently you are probably familiar with Level-1: function-specific automation which encompasses lane-keeping assistance and automatic braking.

Traditionally, technology used in new vehicles is analyzed and enforced by regulators who review safety standards after the vehicles are sold to customers, a self-certification policy that takes years to establish. Under the transportation department’s new policy, automakers must test and provide concise documentation on a vehicle’s system design, its development, how it is tested, and how it is deployed prior to its sale and the systems must receive NHTSA approval before they hit the road.

This change is introduced to make sure the Department of Transportation and manufacturers address safety during planning and development. Self-driving systems are predicted to reduce the 1.25 million annual motor vehicle deaths.

2016 was the first year a fatality was reported in an autopiloted vehicle, when a Tesla, which had logged over 130 million AV miles, crashed into the side of a truck. Tesla responded by stating that the technology was “not perfect” and still required drivers to be alert.

Tesla’s AV system determines whether it can no longer safely drive the vehicle, chimes, and produces a visual alert notifying the driver that they should operate the vehicle.

Stanford University tested such transition times on 22 track drivers and found that transitioning back to driving a vehicle after any physical change (speed, etc.) is difficult. In the 15-second test, drivers were found to change their normal steering patterns when the vehicle alerted them to take control.

In 2018, BMW and Volkswagen plan on unveiling Level-3 vehicles which are able to perform safety-critical functions under certain traffic or environmental conditions, giving drivers a 10-second notice to intervene.

Audi will introduce its Traffic Jam Pilot in 2018, which is also a Level-3 system allowing hands-free driving up to 35 miles per hour. The technology can detect situations requiring human intervention, and allows a 10-second window of response before it will slow to a stop in its lane. Nissan and Honda are erring on the side of caution and giving drivers up to 30 seconds.

But don’t break out your wallet just yet, as manufacturers must recover the costs associated with AV development such as mapping and software (not to mention liability), you may expect the cost of a driverless vehicle to increase by up to $3,000 annually. If you are thinking about skipping the AV revolution and walking, Google has patented technology that will glue you to the hood of its autonomous car if it crashes into you.


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