Self-driving automobiles were once “the future.” Well, self-driving, or autonomous vehicles, are actually “now.” Major brands like Mercedes, BMW and Tesla are pursuing the technology, with self-driving features that enable a vehicle to drive itself to some degree, if not completely, without an operator at the wheel. And in 2015, as part of the company’s ongoing goal of “building a safer driver for everyone,” Google famously “completed the world’s first truly driverless ride on public roads.”
Some research estimates project 10 million self-driving cars will be sharing the roads by 2020 (that’s only 3 model years away!) But is fully, or even mostly self-driving technology really easier and safer? How do self-driving cars navigate, integrate, anticipate–in all kinds of weather, all sorts of terrains, all types of traffic and pedestrian situations?
There are currently five levels of vehicle automation (as defined by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s NHTSA–National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. They range from “No-Automation,” where the driver is in complete control of the car at all times, to “Full Self-Driving Automation,” where the car performs all the critical driving functions for an entire trip.
Monitoring this breakthrough motoring activity will necessitate thorough explanations and understanding of vehicle features and capabilities, where, how and under what conditions they can be driven and other considerations, with the aim of reducing highway crashes and deaths. And the phenomenon will also require interaction between manufacturers, regulators and communities nationwide.
A real-life anecdote: Last year Google admitted that one of its self-driving cars was partially responsible for a fender-bender with a city bus, when the car moved within a lane to avoid an obstruction; the bus, coming from behind, hit the left side of the car, but no one was injured in the accident.
That, and other incidents since the start of Google’s self-driving project in 2009 (in all of which Google says, “the clear theme is human error and inattention,” not the fault of the self-driving car), point to obvious questions and quandaries surrounding this new motoring frontier that must be addressed. They are matters of design and engineering responsibilities, ethical and legal liabilities, and practicalities like insurance coverage and rates.
Industry and political speculation and planning may suggest that earthbound autonomous vehicles will help make roads safer and people’s lives easier. Management consultant KPMG for example, estimates that self-driving cars will lead to 2,500 fewer deaths between 2014 and 2030 in the United Kingdom.
But are complex computer programs, sophisticated cameras, sensors and radar systems foolproof, or even sufficient to guarantee safe driving by the driver-less car and safety for its passengers, passengers in other cars (conventional or autonomous vehicles) and pedestrians?
Can an autonomous car be programmed for every contingency? (Consider this scenario, for instance: a child runs in front of a car and the car’s sensors indicate it can’t stop on time. Will the vehicle be directed/pre-programmed by a Google programmer in advance to go into an opposite lane and face head-on traffic, causing a highly probable crash? Or will it be pre-programmed to escape off-road, potentially heading for a precipice, e.g.? Will the passenger’s family or the passenger himself, if they survive a crash, litigate vehemently against Google? On the other hand, would Google executives ever instruct their programmers to pre-program the control unit computer to run over a child without swaying in an attempt to avoid impact? Would the programmers obey such a directive if it were given?)
There may be a more expedient, feasible and bankable alternative way forward: autonomous airborne cars: cars that move some 7 feet or so above ground, and that can be programmed more precisely to avoid crashes (both minor and fatal) involving other vehicles; cars that minimize or eliminate any factor of human error, primarily because pedestrians’ involvement/interactions are avoided by definition.
One company, SMW Engineering, is investing in the development of just such a cost-efficient airborne vehicle, one that would initially be tested in unpopulated, rural areas. SMW’s Marks Lisnanskis commented, “SMW is a forward-thinking developer of lightest components for motorsports and aerospace industries worldwide. We are supporting the advancement of these airborne vehicles which SMW sees as an optimal solution to autonomous mobility in the not so distant future. We believe this technology has boundless untapped potential, similar to, and to an even greater degree than ‘ekranoplan’ technology–and deserves to be actively researched and ultimately implemented on a wide scale.”
(Ekranoplans, originally developed in the Soviet Union, are among the best-known examples of a ground effect vehicle (GEV)–a vehicle that is designed to attain sustained flight over a level surface by making use of ground effect, the aerodynamic interaction between the wings and the surface. Ground effect vehicles are not aircraft, as they are unable to fly freely in the air, (but) constitute a completely unique class of transportation. source, Wikipedia)