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Self-Driving Cars: Augmented Driving May Be the Best Use of Semi-Autonomous Systems

The headline many of us are missing is that self-driving cars are still a dream of the future. Just as the concept vehicles we see at this year’s auto shows may or may not be in production sometime down the road, fully autonomous vehicles (AVs) may or may not command our roadways 20 or 30 years from now. It’s what autonomous-technology developers are striving for, but no one is sure exactly how or when we will get there, or ultimately, if we can actually get there. There is a lot to be sorted out between now and then.

In a recent post for Combustion, Alex Roy puts forth the idea that in the meantime, autonomous-technology developers are missing the boat. Viewing such things as lane-keep assist and emergency braking as components of the self-driving cars of the future, rather than as assist systems for today’s drivers, is retarding the acceptance of the very systems critical to Level 5 (or fully) autonomous vehicles.

To date, every survey tells us that the majority of the public (75 percent, some surveys found) are reluctant to ride in a car that drives itself. Rather than leaping from human-driven cars to Level 5 AVs, the industry would be better served to sell the public on autonomous systems one at a time.

A Rose by Any Other Name …

It’s human nature to reach for the next shiny thing. In the world of automobiles, the next shiny thing is a self-driving car. Unfortunately, no matter how much some carmakers, like Tesla, want to be there now, Level 5 AVs are still a thing of the future. Getting to cars that drive themselves requires puzzle pieces — over which carmakers have no control — all falling into place. Detailed mapping, artificial intelligence, regulations and insurance are just a few of the issues outside the the control of carmakers, slowing the transition to Level 5 AVs.

According to Roy, when carmakers and other autonomous-technology developers refer to driver-assist systems as semi-autonomous or autonomous systems, they are creating a false image in the minds of consumers. It may just be semantics, but a system, such as emergency braking, that will be part of a Level 5 AV of the future, is really just a system augmenting the skills of the driver of today.

The public is more likely to accept emergency braking as a driver’s aid today than it is to grasp its worth as a mere component of tomorrow’s AV. It and each of the other driver-assist systems that will combine to make Level 5 AVs possible, when accepted on their own, will be better understood and accepted as components of a car that drives itself.

The Human Factor

The ugly truth about driving is, most of us are mediocre at best. Autonomous or semi-autonomous systems suggest replacing driving skills rather than augmenting them. Because humans are somewhat lazy by nature, we are more than willing to hand off as much of the work of driving to a system as we can as soon as we can. The more we rely on autonomous systems, the more our already limited skills will erode. That would be okay if Level 5 autonomy was here today, but it isn’t. And it won’t be here for a decade or more.

In framing semi-autonomous systems, developers and the public would be better served if such systems were sold as assisting a driver’s skills rather than replacing them.

What it means to you: More than likely, Level 5 AVs are coming. In the meantime, though, we still need to do the driving. Driver-assist systems do just that: assist. It’s still up to us to drive safely and responsibly.

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