How Safe are Self-Driving Cars?

Self-Driving Cars are the future

As a personal injury attorney though, I think quite a bit about self-driving cars and what they mean for the future. Technology changes our lives daily. Often, technology changes our lives in ways we’ve never imagined. Importantly, I wonder if self-driving cars should always have a human fail-safe.

A lot of the theory behind autonomous driving is based on a simple principle. Roadways would be safer without the possibility of human error from human drivers. Companies like Tesla, Uber, Apple, Mercedes Benz, and others are all trying to solve the human problem.

But at what cost will these technological marvels come? Tesla’s autopilot seems amazing when viewed in a vacuum. But when stories like this one emerge, it is more difficult to be optimistic. 

And Tesla isn’t the only one having trouble making advanced driver assistance systems safe. A backup driver was in the vehicle for Uber when their self-driving car struck and killed Elaine Herzberg.

Most vehicles on the road today are what is known as “level 0.” These vehicles lack autonomous technology and are manually controlled by people. Corporations trying to solve the self-driving car problem are attempting to reach “level 5.” Human attention would not be required at this level. These vehicles lack steering wheels or even “driver’s seats.”

Autonomous driving technology is not currently close to mass producing level 5 vehicles. Though there are some pundits that believe we will have level 5 self-driving cars by 2025.

In order to understand the safety of these sorts of automated vehicles and their driving systems, we should first try to understand their history.

The Dream of the Self-Driving Car

Since the invention of the automobile, man has dreamt of automating the process. In fact, there was even an exhibit at the 1939 New York World’s Fair with an autonomous vehicle. General Motors used the exhibit to market its image of the future.

At that 1939 exhibit, Norman Bel Geddes (an industrial designer) created what he described as the first self-driving vehicle. Radio-controlled electromagnetic fields guided this vehicle. The track had magnetized metal spikes embedded in it to guide the vehicle. 

These vehicles required human intervention. However, the vehicles were still impressive and a precursor to the idea of a self-driving vehicles being guided by an autonomous highway system. 

In 1977, a Japanese engineer was able to use a camera system in his self-driving vehicle. The vehicle used cameras to relay data in order to process images of the road. However, the vehicle could not travel over 20 miles per hour. 

Within a decade, a German company improved upon the previous Japanese design. The German model was able to travel up to 56 miles per hour safely. The engineers equipped this vehicle to detect objects and react to its environment.

Semi-Autonomous Vehicles

I first considered the idea of a self-driving car when I was a child and I first learned about “cruise control.” I felt the idea of being able to maintain a speed without pressing the accelerator was brilliant. To me, the next logical step was for manufacturers to give people the ability to accelerate without using the gas pedal.

Now, that technology (and more) is ubiquitous. Vehicles come with cruise control standard, and even some base models have the ability to accelerate and brake without use of the pedals.

While we may not realize it, many of us today drive cars with aspects of self-driving capabilities already. Assisted parking and braking systems (like automatic emergency braking) have been in many cars for years now. They have likely prevented thousands of accidents

Other vehicles, like Tesla’s Model S, have the ability to navigate a parking lot without the assistance of a person. Tesla’s “summon” feature allows the vehicle’s owner to start the vehicle and have it navigate its way to the owner. 

Tesla warns not to use this feature in anything but a parking lot. All vehicles with automatic emergency braking still warn their owners to pay attention to the road and keep their hands on the wheel.

self-driving car have come under fire

The Different Self-Driving Competitors

As discussed above, several different manufacturers and technology corporations are attempting to solve the problem of the self-driving car. They all seem to be approaching the issue from a different perspective.

Tesla Self-Driving Cars

Tesla has probably been the most open and aggressive actor in the self-driving space. Elon Musk, Tesla’s CEO, has been touting the coming self-driving capabilities of his vehicles for years. However, Tesla’s rollout has been constantly delayed.

Elon Musk’s plan for self-driving cars is highly ambitious. Musk has said the fully autonomous vehicle will be here “soon.” What is interesting, however, is that Tesla’s approach is different from almost all of their competitors. 

The vast majority of self-driving vehicle developers use LiDAR (light detection and ranging) ultrasonic sensors. However, Tesla uses a completely different system in its design. Instead, Tesla uses a system of cameras all over the vehicle and an AI system to allow the vehicle to see in 360 degrees.

I have already discussed some of Tesla’s other autonomous features above. The company has faced blowback over the years from issues with consumers misusing the features. Previously, a video went viral of a driver asleep behind the wheel of a Tesla traveling on the freeway. While a scary image, one pundit pointed out how dangerous that would have been without self-driving technology.

Mercedes-Benz Self-Driving Cars

Never one to be outdone, Mercedes-Benz recently rolled out their own advanced driving assistance system. Their system is called “Drive Pilot.” It is a “level 3” advanced driving system. 

Level 3 autonomous vehicles require a driver to monitor the car. The vehicle can largely operate itself but the driver must be prepared to reengage and take control of the vehicle.

Apple Self-Driving Cars

Less is known about Apple’s foray into the self-driving car space. However, Apple purchased a company which had been working for years on autonomous driving technology. They have also hired hundreds of engineers with the dedicated purpose of building a self-driving car. No matter what, this product is guaranteed to be incredibly popular should it ever arrive.

Human Drivers vs. Self-Driving Cars

A person that is paying attention is still probably the safest driver on the road. The technology will likely someday reach a point where self-driving cars are the safest means of transportation. But at the moment, a person with their eyes on the road and their hands on the steering wheel is the safest bet on the road. 

A fully autonomous vehicle simply has too many ways things can go wrong. Ultimately, they are relying on cameras, human inputs, and machine learning. There is room for error that our current driving technology has just not bridged yet. 

Call Knapp Accident & Injury Law

As discussed above, self-driving technology is not all the way here yet. However, there are still dangers presented by the vehicles manufactured in the pursuit of it. Therefore, if you or someone you know has been hurt by a vehicle using self-driving technology (whether properly or improperly) call Knapp Accident & Injury Law at (813) 568-3724 for a free consultation.

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