What seemed a utopian dream until a little while ago is becoming a reality. In a few years, our highways will begin to welcome vehicles with nobody behind the wheel to transport adults and children from place to place. Google, one of the companies that is taking the lead in the field of autonomous driving with its Self-Driving Car Project, has been working for some time to ensure that this technology exceeds human capabilities in terms of road safety. However, the search engine itself admits that it is still necessary to improve several aspects. One of the main ones is the need to improve the abilities of machines of this type to respond to human behavior and unexpected situations.
It seems that there is no turning back on the autonomous vehicle, for two main reasons. Their operation is based on compliance with law: there is no interpretation or violation of the standards except in the case of mechanical failure. And it eliminate the human factor, distracted driving, which is present in more than 80 percent of traffic accidents, according to data from the European Automobile Commission (CEA).
However, at this stage of research, one of the greatest challenges is how to safely incorporate these cars into a world in which people don't behave by the rules. In August of 2015, when one of Google's autonomous vehicles was approaching a cross-walk, it braked in order to allow a pedestrian to cross. Nothing happened to the pedestrian, but the car was hit from behind by another vehicle. On a previous occasion, another Google robot car ended up stuck in the middle of a 4-way intersection because its sensors were waiting for the human drivers to come to a complete stop and allow it to go through.
Google's autonomous cars would have been involved in at least 13 accidents between September 2014 and November 2015 in California (United States) if the people riding in them for safety reasons had not intervened, as announced by the company in early 2016. In addition, on 272 occasions the car's software detected a system anomaly that could have had affected safety, prompting the test driver to immediately take control of the vehicle.
"We are constantly testing and evaluating our software", assured Chris Urmson in a press release. Urmson is the autonomous car project director for Google, whose vehicles have already covered more than two million kilometers (1.25 million miles). Urmson pointed out that it is still early to claim that autonomous driving is safer than human driving, but they are satisfied with it "sustained progress".
The risks of a new technology
At Google, they are sure that this is the technology of the future. According to Urmson, autonomous vehicles have the potential to reduce the number of accidents because they eliminate driver distraction and driver error, which cause thousands of crashes, injuries and deaths.
The United States Governments agrees, and so will earmark 4 billion dollars (more than 3.5 billion euros) for the development of this technology over the next 10 years, as announced in early 2016 by the Secretary of Transportation, Anthony Foxx, at the auto show in Detroit, the cradle of the United States automobile industry. In addition to financial support, the Obama Administration plans to create a legal framework to regulate traffic flow for vehicles of this type. "We are in a new world and we know it. We wonder what would happen if it were possible to eliminate human error. It is a possibility that is worth looking into," stated Foxx to the Detroit press.
However, it will be some time before such cars come into widespread use, as the experts try to minimize the potential risks. In this regard, California's Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) proposed restrictive legislation for vehicles of this type in late 2015. It would require every autonomous car on the public thoroughfares of the state to be equipped with a steering wheel and pedals, as well a the presence of a human being in the driver's seat. The way the DMV sees it, manufacturers need to gain more experience before these brains on wheels start driving down the highways.