Self-Driving Cars, Are They Coming to Our Roads?

If you are planning on buying a new 2017 vehicle, you might not know yet that it will come with connectivity.  It will be able to communicate with other new models and they things like how fast the car is going, is it in its lane, and what direction it is headed.  Don’t worry, after market updates won’t be far behind.

But that’s not the hot topic of the year, reports Richard Beaubien,  PE, past International President of the Institute of Transportation Engineers.  The hot topic today is self-driving cars, and when will they be available for all of us.

Beaubien says that estimates are three to 30 years, but some of the technology will be available in the not-too-distant future.

There’s no question about the need for better transportation for the disabled and aged.

But there are still many questions to consider.  They are testing driverless cars in Michigan, primarily around Ann Arbor, where there are already 3,000 on the road communicating with each other and in the San Francisco Bay area.

But  the testing has to start in a logical progression with a graduated system.  First we engineers test on freeways.  We started here because it’s the easiest situation to drive in because all the traffic is going in the same direction.  It’s all moving about the same speed, and the road doesn’t really change shape quickly.

Then it’s on the boulevards, where we add cross traffic and traffic signals.  “it’s comparatively easy.”  Beaubien says of that condition.

But when you ramp up to driving in urban centers a whole new set of conditions are encountered.  “Here everything is so compact, cars are coming from every which way and there’s all kinds of traffic with pedestrians and mixed intersections going on.  This is the hardest kind of driving.”

When we think of rolling in self-driving vehicles, Beaubien says we think of roads that are easy to drive, and the weather is good, so bringing that technology there sounds possible.  Of course, he adds, that rain can make this technology to handle.  He wonders what snow will do to this technology, when lane lines are no longer visible.  Some technology in expensive cars now being offered has trouble operating in inclement weather.

There’s no doubt that automated and connected cars have the potential to substantially reduce accidents.  The vehicle can “see” nearby vehicles and know road conditions you cannot see.  Crashes can be reduced or eliminated through driver advisories, driver warnings, and vehicle control.

There are, however, still ethical questions to be answered about all this new technology, Beaubien continues.

“Traffic is a social dance,” he observes, something he learned during over 40 years as a traffic engineer.  Humans are pretty capable, he notes, and the question is how do we create robots for a human world?”  Do we want a vehicle programmed not to exceed 55 mph when the rest of the traffic is going mph?  Would your self-driving car strike a pedestrian rather than cross a double yellow line?  And, there are definitely questions about cyber security of the vehicle’s computer.

“Finding the right balance between our personal interest and the needs of others is a finely calibrated human instinct driven by a sense of fairness, reciprocity, and common interest.” Beaubien says.

The question is: Can we teach that balance to a computer in our car?



Cynithia Kmett,  Troy Somerset Gazette, June 27, 2016