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Totally Self-Driving Cars Are Still More Dream than Reality

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author photo by Russ Heaps December 2016

If you listen to Tesla's Elon Musk, self-driving cars are just around the corner. In fact, many carmakers, caught up in the race to autonomous vehicles (AVs), say the same thing -- sort of. What they actually say is that the industry is already 80 to 85 percent there. That 80 percent, however, was the easy part. Grinding out the remaining 15 or 20 percent will prove to be the real challenge.

Remember, we're talking about vehicles being able to fully function without a human on board. AVs will chauffeur your 12-year-old to a clarinet lesson or a blind person to the supermarket. Even if they do contain a steering wheel and pedals for the accelerator and brakes, such redundant equipment won't be necessary.

Today's semi-autonomous technology can bring a car to a full stop, maintain its position in its lane (even when cornering), self-adjust its speed to that of surrounding traffic, identify and stop for a jaywalking pedestrian, find an empty parking space, park itself and much more. If that's true, what's the holdup?

Here are a few of the hurdles still standing between us and totally self-driving cars -- obstacles that may take decades to overcome.

Blame Game

Let's call this the bureaucratic morass of AVs. It includes the government and insurance issues pertaining to driverless cars.

In the fall of this year, for the very first time, the federal government issued some guidelines for testing and adapting semi-autonomous technologies. Adaptive cruise control is the most prolific of these, but other semi-autonomous systems such as active braking have been around since about 2000. It's truly amazing that 16 years have passed with countless semi-autonomous systems being introduced into the marketplace without the government taking any steps to regulate testing and use.

But Uncle Sam is now beginning to respond to driverless technology. Introducing government regulations, review and paperwork into the process is bound to slow down innovation and development.

Insurance is all about who's going to pay for what when something goes wrong. Much is made of the ethical dilemma of a computer deciding who or what is going to get hit when circumstances make it unavoidable. If the AV must choose between running down a mother pushing a baby carriage in an intersection or steering into three school children on the sidewalk, how will that be programmed?

In reality, circumstances force human drivers to make similar decisions every day. Is there really an ethical choice? Based on what? The issue with a computer doing the deciding is that there are multiple entities to blame: the carmaker, the computer maker, the computer programmer, the vehicle owner and so forth.

Before the first truly autonomous cars roll onto streets, insurance companies and regulators must decide how to affix blame in countless scenarios.

Uncharted Waters

When mapping streets, roads, alleys, highways and so on, close isn't nearly close enough. First, before removing steering wheels from cars, literally every foot of paved and unpaved roadway must be mapped. Countless new streets are added every day, and each and every one of these must be included in the digital mapping.

Second, mapping must be 100 percent precise. Today's consumer GPS systems are only accurate to within a few feet or more. That simply won't be sufficient when positioning a driverless car. Mapping must be all-inclusive and accurate within a fraction of an inch.

It's the Software, Stupid

If money is the root of all evil in everyday life, software is the devil in the development of AVs. If you've ever been on the phone with your laptop-maker's tech-support people in an attempt to figure out why your machine keeps freezing up, you might be forgiven for being somewhat nervous about a computer completely controlling a 4,500-lb pickup truck traveling at 60 miles per hour.

Software is prone to glitches. I want to throw myself under a bus with every new Windows version as I struggle through the inevitable problems. Combine the tendency of software to not always perform at 100 percent with its inability to always accurately process the information provided by sensors and cameras tasked with information gathering, and you have the potential for mayhem.

In a nanosecond, software and sensors must be able to separate real threats and hazards from non-threats. Cresting a hill, a road sign positioned over the highway can look like its an object in the road to a sensor. If the technology misreads it as a road hazard, it will trigger emergency braking. A relentless slamming-on of the brakes can become tiring, to say the least.

Flawlessly performing software is still somewhere in the future.

You Talkin' to Me?

Vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) communication is how totally autonomous vehicles will socially integrate. V2V and V2I will be required to keep the hive of AVs operating smoothly, efficiently and safely.

Arriving together at a 4-way stop, which AV will proceed through the intersection first? Without a fully functioning V2V technology, perhaps neither will go. Or maybe both will go, slamming on their brakes as they realize a crash is imminent. Once stopped, they'll repeat the process, perhaps indefinitely.

V2V isn't close to operational, and Audi just introduced the very first stepping stone to V2I technology.

Oil and Water

No one has yet figured out how to integrate fully driverless cars with cars piloted by humans. There will have to be a transition period where AVs share the road with humans. The unpredictability of humans and the rigid programming of AVs will have to coexist, perhaps for decades. How will that work? No one has a clue.

What it means to you: Don't hold your breath -- consumer-operated self-driving cars zipping around our highways are still years, if not decades away.

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.
Totally Self-Driving Cars Are Still More Dream than Reality - Autotrader