Driverless Vehicles Could Be In Widespread Use Within Next Decade, Experts Say

Human Drivers Should Take The Backseat To Autonomous Automobiles

For Wisconsin Public Radio – November 28, 2016

MADISON, Wis. — The race to an autonomous vehicle is on.

Companies such as Tesla and Google are working on the next innovation in the automobile industry: driverless cars. The self-driving technology is already in use by the companies in smaller capacities. And even though everyday drivers have yet to see access to such vehicles, driverless cars may be hitting the road in widespread use sooner than you think – within the next decade, said experts Hod Lipson, a mechanical engineering professor at Columbia University, and Melba Kurman, an author and technology analyst.

In their new book, “Driverless: Intelligent Cars and the Road Ahead,” Kurman and Lipson, director of the Creative Machines Lab at Columbia University, claim advancements in visual sensing technology and programming are putting driverless cars becoming the new normal for a variety of reasons, including safety.

There were 35,200 vehicle traffic deaths in 2015, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Some of these deaths are due to distracted driving, which can include activities such as texting, watching videos or talking to passengers.

A driverless vehicle, capable of sensing the environment and traversing the roads with no human controls, could lead to safer roads and allow people to do all of these things while commuting to work or home without touching the wheel.

To Lipson and Kurman, the bottom line is there is a price to pay for human autonomy over automobiles. The two argue humans are dangerous drivers and giving up our autonomy to artificial intelligence may offer a solution to a fatal problem.

But the technology isn’t perfect and is being developed to account for numerous scenarios autonomous vehicles can encounter such as severe weather conditions or crashes. Companies are testing the technology on the open road and collecting more data in order to perfect the driving performance. Once performance levels reach an exceptional level, human controlled cars could very well become an antiquity of the past.

“You asked about whether we can make it foolproof,” Lipson said. “That bar is too high. We have to remember that human drivers are far from perfect. … It doesn’t have to be foolproof, it just has to be a little bit better than the average human driver.”

Lipson and Kurman are looking at a future with fully autonomous cars, requiring no assistance from any human counterparts in order to drive. To contrast, driver-assisted technology – cruise control, lane keeping, and automatic brake assists – are partially autonomous, but split the automobile control between human and machine.

“The core idea that we feel strongly about is that humans and software should not take turns driving. That’s not safe,” Kurman said.

“Taking over manual control is actually a dangerous thing,” Lipson added. “… This idea that the human will take control at certain points, in an emergency or a malfunction, is really, it’s something we call split responsibility and it doesn’t work.”

Whether within the next decade or 50 years from now, driverless cars will be in our future and drivers won’t be putting even a finger on the wheel, Kurman said.

Photo: Department for Transport (CC-BY-NC-ND)

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