The Drive for Driverless Cars

Automated vehicles are coming, but will they be fun?

In the 1960s, the television show “Candid Camera” had several skits in which they faked driverless cars moving past unsuspecting people. It was funny because everyone knew that driverless cars were impossible. That was then, but now the great technical and social challenge of developing driverless cars has suddenly been opened up to us, as described in last month’s issue of IEEE Spectrum.

At the turn of the millennium, I was a member of a committee of the National Academy of Engineering whose task was to select the most outstanding engineering achievements of the 20th century. First was electrification, followed by the automobile. Because an important criterion was social impact, we reasoned that the development of the automobile profoundly changed where we lived and how we lived. At about the same time, people were making lists of important future achievements for the 21st century—grand challenges with social impacts. But as far as I know, driverless cars were not on any of those lists.

It is amazing that automobiles have changed so little since the Ford Model T was introduced in 1908. The basic function is still about the same, and some of those Model Ts are still on the road. But now we have the chance to really make a difference. The technology is ripe, but it won’t be easy.

Someone who recently had the opportunity to sit in a driverless car on a San Francisco freeway described his experience as initially terrifying but later simply boring. I was thinking about that description as I watched television ads for new cars. The ads featured cars that could climb mountains, ford streams, and had so much power that they could go from 0 to 60 miles an hour in almost nothing flat. They were fun to drive and sleek in appearance. I imagined instead an ad for a new, driverless car that stressed how boring the ride was. Are people really going to want these cars?

Every driver has an individual driving style and persona. I’m comfortable when I’m being driven by some people and uncomfortable with others. And when I drive, I don’t like being stuck behind a slow driver, nor do I like being pushed by an impatient faster driver behind me. I’m wondering: Will driverless cars have an adjustable comfort level of speed and aggression?

Group behavior in traffic is a complex phenomenon. Some drivers believe this is a zero-sum game, while others believe that courtesy helps everyone. A classic case is a long line at an exit ramp, where traffic moves slowly because some drivers speed by the line of cars and cut in at the front. Will driverless cars be tempted into such behavior, or will they be unfailingly polite?

Then there are the classic routing decisions. Heading into New York City, you receive a radio bulletin that the Lincoln Tunnel is jammed, while at the Holland Tunnel traffic is moving well. Hearing this, many drivers will still go to the Lincoln Tunnel in the belief that everyone else will go to the Holland Tunnel. Enough drivers are siphoned off to make the traffic in both tunnels even out. But will all the driverless cars use identical routing algorithms and so jam the tunnel that was said to be good?

Will driverless cars know when it might be okay to break a law, like crossing a yellow center line to avoid an object? Can they exceed the speed limit while passing another vehicle? And if there is a traffic violation, who gets the ticket? In the event of an accident, who gets sued? And there are those ethical decisions that sometimes must be made almost instantaneously: Hit a deer or crash the car?

So as powerful as the technology is, there will be social problems. Moreover, a lot of people like to drive and want to feel in control. Driverless cars could save lives in the future, but I’m afraid that there could well be a strong market for old cars that still permit human driving, even when it’s inept and dangerous.

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