COMMENT: Unanswered questions colour the ‘happily ever after’ for AVs

A new Automotive World report explores some of the major challenges that auto industry stakeholders face as vehicle automation gathers pace. By Megan Lampinen

Automakers and technology developers are making bold claims about the capabilities of their prototype self-driving vehicles, but the path towards a fully autonomous ecosystem will be a long one.

When it comes to hardware and software, small-scale trials, projects and pilots are in focus at the moment. Most players agree roughly on the key ingredients needed for these vehicles to perform, such as deep learning, artificial intelligence, connectivity, sensors, LiDAR, mapping technology, etc. But the development of the vehicle is just the start.

Be it in the lab, on a test track or a public road, accumulating test miles is essential. Much of the testing under way today is conducted on closed facilities, as nobody wants to make mistakes in public.

Geographical features as well as the culture of driving vary widely around the world, and programming an AV to drive in London is not the same as programming it to drive in Las Vegas or Beijing

Michigan’s Mcity is one of the largest testing facilities specifically designed to evaluate autonomous functionality and it keeps a close lid on what goes on there. Notably, a team of university researchers at the facility has been developing a concept for an autonomous certification test procedure, which could eventually be used to grant fully autonomous vehicles (AV) the equivalent of today’s driving licence.

But will a one-size-fits-all AV licence cut it in a future of self-driving cars? Geographical features as well as the culture of driving vary widely around the world, and programming an AV to drive in London is not the same as programming it to drive in Las Vegas or Beijing. At some point, AVs may be certified for limited use within a specific geographic region. Will the agency that does that also be responsible for monitoring their ongoing road worthiness during their years of use?

There is no law instructing vehicles to avoid running over wildlife, but imagine the public reaction if these vehicles start mowing down pets

Aside from the technical aspects of safe deployment, there is the regulatory framework to put in place to address both liability responsibilities. Who is responsible for an AV when there’s a collision or malfunction? This is a new area of law that’s raising issues with no precedent.

The law will also need to delve into ethical questions in a new way. Forget the runaway trolley dilemma; there are plenty of more mundane and more likely instances to consider. For instance, how do you programme AVs to deal with the roadway challenge of seasonal toad crossing? There is no law instructing vehicles to avoid running over wildlife, but imagine the public reaction if these vehicles start mowing down pets.

These are just a handful of the numerous changes and challenges that need to be considered when laws previously written for humans are applied to machines. To read more about what will be required in this journey towards autonomy, download Automotive World‘s Special Report: The Path to the Autonomous Car.

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