Driverless = Discretionless Vehicle

Photo of dog sitting in the driving seat of a car - owner driven to despair

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Those in favour of driverless cars state that they will lead to a lower death rate on our roads. Driverless cars will need to be equipped with a lot of advanced technology to travel on public roads. A key question is whether the programming of driving aids will be effective to both detect what is happening on the road and how to react to avoid an accident.

Sadly, we know that, at times, an individual’s judgement may be faulty or impaired leading to injury or death. An individual has the ability to make judgement calls as our brain reacts to help us to deal with unexpected situations. Having read several articles on the safety of driverless cars [1], some of the comments described the experience I have when driving regularly a new car equipped with many driving aids. Such aids are often fitted in new cars whether or not the purchaser wishes to have them. I do wonder whether the technology in a driverless car will be fit for purpose.

Unreliability of Current Driving Aids

A huge improvement will be required to current techology if vehicles are allowed to be without a driver on our roads. Their current ineffectiveness can be seen in the following examples:~

– Incorrect speed limit information;
– Camera view blurred or unreliable;
– Misreading of white lane lines;
– More prone to faults while driving.

Incorrect Speed Limit Displayed

While driving 20 or more miles down the A1, the speed limit advice displayed 80 mph. I had to break off my journey so I do not know whether that would have corrected itself further along the route. Other speed limit errors also appear – when driving in 40 mph areas, the reading displays 60 mph limit and on other roads it will state 40 mph when it is clearly a 60 mph limit as attested by the road signs.

The above have consequences. For example, the 80 mph error may result in the cruise control zooming up to 80 mph even though the national speed limit is 70 mph. The displayed limit of 40 mph when the road has a legal limit of 60 mph could lead to accidents as vehicles overtake the ‘slow’ vehicle in front. I would add that having returned my car to the dealer to rectify the problem, the 80 mph issues seems to been fixed but the confusion of 40 mph limit on a 60 mph road still occurs.

Camera View and Information Unreliable

Camera views to the rear etc. would seem to be an essential feature in a driverless vehicle. The problem with cameras is that the view can be easily obscured by dirt or blurred by rain. I find that the distances to objects shown on the view is over cautious, for example, a wide gap between you and a wall or another car results when parking. A driver has the ability to turn around to look out the windows or even get out of the car to look. However, in a driverless car, that is not an option so more thought will need to be applied to deal with dirt or weather affecting visibility and camera views.

Misreading White Line Road Markings

Lane advice will be important in a driverless vehicle, for example, a warning that the vehicle has crossed a lane line. However, cars equipped with line monitoring do not seem able to discern the difference between crossing a lane line or just lines drawn to denote a bus stop area. The risk is that the car may take avoidance action against the latter and cause an accident.

Facing a New Situation – What to Do

driverless tractor at the edge of the seaver

How will a driverless vehicle react when facing a new situation i.e. circumstances for which it has not been programmed? That may be as simple as a rising water level or snow. You may say that it just needs to shut down but will the situation allow for that or worse will it place the passengers in more danger. Anticipating such circumstances or finding a way to programme a ‘safe stop or abort operation’ will be necessary but what assurance will there be that safety will not be compromised

The tendency is to think of driverless cars but there are moves to have driverless articulated lorries, buses etc. At first those may appear on dedicated guided tracks or roads. However, the point at which they will be allowed on public roads raises a wide range of safety and legal issues. For example, with whom wil liability lay for personal injury or death – the seller or hirer of the vehicle, the manufacturer, the programmer or the designer?

Sources: [1] ‘Self-driving cars will kill – but also save lives, says Toyota Boss’ report by Alan Tovey in Tokyo, Daily Telegraph, 23 October 2019 .

© 2019 Jim Harrington, HR Management Dimensions.

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