Autonomous Cars Entering Dangerous Stage of Limbo, Claims Report

Author: Vineeth Joel Patel   

Autonomous cars aren't even on the roads yet and they've already changed a lot of things. In a rush to be the first to come out with a vehicle that can drive itself, automakers are pushing semi-autonomous features onto vehicles in increasing ability. 

Tesla was arguably the first automaker to come out with a semi-autonomous system that's known as Autopilot. While the system featured highly-advanced hardware and software when it first came out, Tesla has upgraded the system over time. The most recent update utilizes even more hardware and software to make the electric vehicles operate even more like a fully-autonomous vehicle. 

Semi-Autonomous Vehicles Have Their Limits

Still, even with all of the updates and warnings about the system's abilities, Tesla owners are still finding a way to push the boundaries of the Autopilot system. As The Guardian reports, police officers in San Francisco came upon a Tesla that was stopped in the middle of a five-lane highway last week. The driver claimed the vehicle was in "Autopilot" mode. 

Another incident occurred a little later and involved a Model S owner that slammed into the rear of a firetruck, in Irvine, Calif. As the outlet reports, the driver, who was allegedly under the influence of alcohol while driving, claims that vehicle was in "Autopilot" mode. The driver was reportedly found asleep at the wheel. 

The allure of autonomous vehicles, according to automakers and tech companies, is that they'll make roads safer. But, as the outlet points out, that's not the case with semi-autonomous cars. And while some CEOs claim that autonomous cars are still a few years off in the distance, they're creating what The Guardian refers to as a "messy interim period." 

More Self-Driving Features Are Creating Worse Drivers

At the moment, automakers are packing their vehicles with all sorts of semi-autonomous tech, including radar-guided cruise control, lane-change assist, automatic emergency braking, and rear automatic emergency braking. While one would assume that the advanced safety features would make drivers better, the tech is actually making drivers worse

A Tesla spokeswoman told The Guardian that, "Autopilot is intended for use only with fully attentive driver." But that's not what fully-autonomous vehicles are being pushed as. Consumers are being told that rides in fully-autonomous vehicles will mimic that of a theme-park ride and being able to watch tv, work, or text will be possible. But that's in the future and not now. 

The technology that's in cars now is making it possible for drivers to feel like they're in an autonomous vehicle that can handle all of the driving. So when they look away from the road or a condition that the vehicle can't handle arises, they're slow to take control back from the car. 

"People are inclined to be distracted. "We're on our phones, eating burgers, driving with our knees," said Nidhi Kalra, senior information scientist at the Rand Corporation. "Additional autonomy gives people a sense that something else is in control, and we have a tendency to overestimate the technology's capabilities." 

Audi A8 sedan.jpg

Are Drivers Or Companies To Blame?

Rand put the current situation with autonomous vehicles nicely. Steven Shladover from the University of California, Berkley's Path program, was a little more critical. "These companies are overselling the capabilities of the systems they have and the public is being misled." 

While tech companies like Waymo are testing self-driving minivans without any drivers behind the wheel, Audi made waves by developing the A8 with Level 3 self-driving capability. That means the sedan can handle the majority of driving on its own, but will need a human operator to take control over the vehicle in certain situations. The majority of aforementioned safety features are classified as Level 2. 

The Guardian reports that Waymo's CEO, John Krafcik, decided to skip Level 3 automation with its vehicles after watching video footage of drivers texting and even sleeping behind the wheel of semi-autonomous vehicles. The decision will see the tech company go straight to fully-autonomous cars in the hopes of increasing safety. 

"We found that human drivers over-trusted the technology and were not monitoring the roadway carefully enough to safely take control when needed," said Waymo in a 2017 safety report

While humans are unpredictable, the tech features in vehicles on the road now aren't foolproof and they can do weird things. Ian Reagan from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) claimed that there's a lot of potential when it comes to safety, but believes Waymo's cautious approach is the proper one.

"There are lots of potential unintended consequences, particularly with Level 2 and 3 systems," said Reagan. "Even the best ones do things you don't expect." 

In light of the recent incidents, some other companies have decided to go down the cautious route, just like Waymo has. At the end of last year, Volvo announced that its "Drive Me" autonomous car pilot program would be delayed by four years. The Swedish automaker claimed that additional problems they had not planned to encounter arose, causing it to backtrack. 

Other automakers, like Tesla, are still pushing ahead, aiming for dates as early as 2019 for the release of vehicles that will allow people to pay little to no attention when behind the wheel of one of its cars. 

Unfortunately, as long as automakers and tech companies continue to roll out with better, more-advanced semi-autonomous features, human drivers will continue to push the boundaries of what's possible. The only way this will come to an end, will be when fully-autonomous cars hit the road. Hopefully, for companies and drivers, that happens sooner than later. 

via: The Guardian

Vineeth Joel Patel
Joel Patel has been covering all aspects of the automotive industry for four years as an editor and freelance writer for various websites. When it comes to cars, he enjoys covering the merger between technology and cars. In his spare time, Joel likes to watch baseball, work on his car, and try new foods
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