Autonomous Vehicles

Why Driverless Cars?

The idea of an “autonomous” vehicle that can navigate without human intervention fascinates consumers, and they enjoy watching videos of motorists working on a laptop or reading the newspaper while riding passively in the driver’s seat.

On the technology side, much attention has been given to how these vehicles navigate using sophisticated sensors paired with map information, satellite location signals and tremendous computing power. However, the real story is the potential benefits to consumers that could come from automated vehicles. These include:

  • Fewer Crashes: According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, more than 35,000 lives were lost on U.S. highways in 2015. In addition, the economic and societal costs of collisions are a staggering $836 billion per year. Studies estimate more than 94 percent of all collisions are the result of human error, and autonomous vehicles could potentially eliminate most crashes by managing the hazards of driving better than most people. A computerized car can react faster than a human, and doesn’t get distracted or tired, talk or text on a cell phone or suffer road rage.
  • Better Traffic Flow: Autonomous cars communicating with one another could manage the overall pace of traffic to maintain an even flow regardless of the volume of cars. No more stops and starts, freeway “parking lots” or extended delays.
  • Improved Fuel Economy: Shorter commute times and reduced braking and acceleration thanks to better traffic management equals less fuel used. In addition, an autonomous vehicle connected to the infrastructure would know where the nearest open parking space is – so no more time and gas spent circling the block repeatedly waiting for a spot to open up.
  • Road Use Efficiency: Autonomous vehicles will support more widespread use of car sharing, reducing the total number of vehicles on the road. Self-driving vehicles can also operate with less space between cars than is needed to allow for human driver reaction times. As a result, more vehicles can be accommodated on each mile of roadway, and could help identify specific areas for additional infrastructure.

However, all of these benefits depend on a number of factors: achieving a critical mass of reliable autonomous vehicles that minimizes human input on driving, and creating interoperable and cooperative systems where vehicles and infrastructure can communicate in order to create more efficient traffic management, and consumer acceptance. These could be decades away.

Automated Vehicles to Hit the Road by 2020? Not So Fast

When automakers and tech companies talk about Level 5 or fully self – driving vehicles, they aren’t trying to find cars in a parking garage. Instead, modern vehicles are categorized by the level of autonomous technology they offer. Levels start at 0, for cars with no autonomous controls, and rise to Level 5 for cars that can perform all driving tasks and monitor the driving environment under all conditions in which a human driver could do the same.

Automakers and their partners, technology companies and research institutions are all working to develop self-driving technology and some experts say Level 5 vehicles could be on the road by 2020. In truth, autonomous technology exists on the road today in the form of safety features like adaptive cruise control, automatic emergency braking or lane keeping technologies that monitor the road and intervene when necessary.

Some companies are already testing Level 4 or 5 vehicles, but these advanced technologies face technical challenges and human issues involving how drivers will interface with self-driving cars.  Meanwhile, federal and state governments are determining how to adapt existing safety, licensing and liability laws and regulations to accommodate self-driving vehicles. As consumers slowly replace old cars with new cars, the U.S. will likely see a mix of vehicles with differing levels of automation on our roads for decades.

AAA Q&A on Self-Driving Cars

Greg Brannon has a bird’s eye view of advancements in autonomous vehicles. As AAA’s director of automotive engineering and industrial relations, Brannon manages the tests AAA runs on advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) such as adaptive cruise control and automatic emergency braking, which are precursors to fully-autonomous cars and trucks.

Here’s what Brannon has to say about where autonomous vehicle technology is today, its safety and security, and issues that will need to be addressed before fully automated self-driving cars hit the highway.

Electric cars are an easy platform for autonomous vehicles because they are already equipped with an electric throttle, steering and braking controls. Plus, automakers think electric autonomous vehicles will be more appealing from an environmental aspect.

Advanced driver assistance systems are the building blocks toward autonomous vehicles. By driving cars with ADAS, consumers are testing autonomous vehicle technology on the roadways today, they just don’t realize it.

Some vehicles with adaptive cruise control, automatic emergency braking and lane-keeping assist can more or less drive themselves under highway conditions. However, you need to keep your hands on the wheel because the systems will likely shut off if you don’t remain engaged. That said, we’ve tested many of these systems and haven’t found one that works in all situations or to a level that I would be comfortable to use without constant monitoring. Systems sometimes fail to see lane markings, or correctly identify obstructions in the roadway. And, in our latest tests of automatic emergency braking systems, some worked well while others slowed a bit before colliding with our target vehicle.

In theory, they should be safer. An autonomous car will never be tired, impaired by drugs or alcohol, and it will never be distracted looking at texts or talking on the phone. This should result in reduced crashes. However, based on our testing to date, the technology’s implementation is not yet sufficiently fail-safe. There is still no replacement for an actively engaged human driver; even with the latest systems you have to pay attention.

Say you’re driving down a highway in good weather conditions and your car has a button you push to have it drive itself. What happens if there is a crash? Who is driving the car, the autonomous system or the person behind the wheel? A few automakers have stepped up and said they will assume liability when the vehicle is in autonomous operation, but most have said nothing. And is it the automaker or the technology company that developed the software which could be liable? Under current statutes, the driver is supposed to be in control of the vehicle at all times and will likely remain responsible until policymakers amend liability laws. Finally, autonomous vehicle computers collect more data than ever about driving that may be relevant to help reconstruct a crash. Who owns this data and who may access it for liability purposes? Policymakers will need to address these issues as well.