Have Driverless Cars Hit Too Many Roadblocks?

Obstacles to driverless cars

More than 30,000 road deaths occur each year in the United States. The vast majority of these are caused by driver error.

Driverless cars offer a potential remedy, along with some significant costs savings. Adam Ozimek, who blogs at Forbes.com, conservatively estimates that $189 billion could be saved in accidents that cause injury, $37 billion for prevention of non-injury accidents, and $99 billion could be gained in productivity as drivers free-up their time, transitioning to multitasking passengers. That’s a total of $642 billion.

Many so-called advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) are already available in production vehicles. Tesla models can read the speed limit shown on road signs and automatically adjust the vehicle accelerator in response, for instance.

But there are still some major obstacles to achieving fully autonomous operation. Some of these are technical, like the need to develop highly detailed maps that can show, for example, the condition of a shoulder or height of the curb. Then there are the regulatory and legal obstacles. Only four states currently allow the operation of semi-autonomous vehicles, and fully autonomous vehicles are not yet allowed anywhere in the U.S.

So what is the greatest roadblock to getting driverless vehicles on the road?

Peter Appel of AlixPartners, a consulting firm that works closely with the automotive industry, says that cultural, legal and regulatory considerations are paramount. “We hold innovation to a much higher standard,” Appel says. “If autonomous vehicles cause even a tiny fraction of the number of fatalities as traditional vehicles, there will likely be an outcry about their safety. The natural tendency of the public to judge driverless vehicle safety based on isolated problems could well be an issue.”

Second, Appel says, the vehicle regulatory system is built on careful, data-driven analysis of how vehicles can prevent or contribute to unsafe outcomes. Studying the impact of autonomous vehicles on roadway safety will likely take more time than autonomous vehicle innovators would like.

In addition there are a number of legal issues that must be addressed, Appel explains. “Given that liability for automobile crashes today generally lies with the driver operating the vehicle, the legal community and insurance companies will need to address how this will change if the vehicle is driving itself.”

Egil Juliussen, director of research for infotainment and advanced driver assistance systems at IHS Automotive, says technology is the biggest factor holding back widespread adoption of driverless.

“It will take ten years or so to get all the underlying technologies ready for deployment at an affordable price,” Juliussen says. “Hardware advances are needed to provide required capabilities while maintaining price affordability. Improvements in software are needed to create a competent virtual driver. High-definition maps are needed to provide accurate positioning databases to drive nearly everywhere,” he concludes.

But Appel argues that while technical obstacles surrounding autonomous cars are complex, they are easier to overcome. “The long-term progression towards fully autonomous vehicles started many years ago and has progressed with a wide range of driver assistance systems,” he says. “Autonomous vehicles that are already being tested today are capable of processing a massive amount of inputs and determining the appropriate reaction almost instantly. They can arguably drive better than a human.”

Furthermore, says Appel, each year innovators build even more capabilities and fail-safe aspects into autonomous vehicle systems that improve their capabilities and robustness.

Appel suggests several pathways to overcoming the cultural, legal and regulatory obstacles impeding autonomous vehicles. It’s the responsibility of OEMs and suppliers, he argues, to provide visible demonstrations of the capabilities of autonomous systems with a very large sample of data points to prove that safety levels are not just equivalent to current human driven vehicles but substantially better.

Appel calls for a constructive dialog between autonomous vehicle innovators, carmakers, the insurance industry, regulators and other key stakeholders with the goal of creating a legal and regulatory environment that can handle this new approach to driving.

Finally, he recommends a targeted rollout of autonomous vehicles in selected geographic areas that have passed laws allowing for their operation with very careful monitoring of how these vehicles affect safety.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

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