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Can Self-Driving Cars and Human-Controlled Vehicles Coexist?

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author photo by Russ Heaps May 2016

You can expect to see self-driving cars, or autonomous vehicles (AVs), on the highway in a limited form within the next 5 to 10 years. Experts believe delivery trucks, buses, taxis and so forth will lead the way, but AVs will likely be available to the public at some point in the future.

As probable as it is, completely converting from human-driven vehicles to AVs won't happen in the blink of an eye, overnight or even within a single decade. Production limitations won't allow it, and even if carmakers could build enough for everyone to buy an AV from the get-go, they'd be too expensive at that time for most consumers to afford.

However, human-driven vehicles and AVs will share the streets and highways one day, so the question isn't whether AVs and human-controlled cars can coexist, but if they'll be able to do so safely. The answer? Maybe or maybe not.

Night and Day

Humans and computers simply don't think alike. Technology presses toward artificial intelligence and computers with the ability to learn from experience, but it's not there yet. In the meantime, computers will think and react as programmed, time after time.

As humans gain experience behind the wheel, even the most law-abiding people tend to adjust their behavior as experiences evolve their thinking and reactions. For example, after years of driving, a person may decide it's safe to drive a few miles per hour over the speed limit or cruise through a traffic light as it's turning from yellow to red. AVs, however, will always follow the rules to the letter.

Nearly all the accidents involving AVs tested on public streets have resulted from a human driver rear-ending the AV. While you can argue that the most common accident between human drivers is likewise rear-ending one another, consider how the likelihood of such accidents may increase with AVs programmed to obey the law and stop when the light switches from green to yellow while human drivers continue through the intersection as the light turns red.

Give and Take

Because it's second nature, most drivers don't consider the subtle communications they have with other drivers sharing the streets. For example, think about the way drivers deal with 4-way stops. Although there are set regulations for which car goes first, many drivers spend time making a judgment call as to who proceeds first. A driver might nod their head or use a hand gesture to alert another driver to yield the right of way. Accurately interpreting such behavior is beyond an AV's current technology.

Whether it's dealing with a 4-way stop, merging into highway traffic, vying for a spot in a crowded parking lot or another situation in which human drivers typically make judgment calls, AVs and human-controlled vehicles won't have the benefit of driver communication.

What it means to you: Humans don't think or behave like computers. Determining how self-driving cars and human-controlled cars will coexist is another major wrinkle on the way to fully autonomous vehicles, and it's one that must be ironed out.

This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
Can Self-Driving Cars and Human-Controlled Vehicles Coexist? - Autotrader