Who’s Really in the Driver’s Seat?

There’s no denying that autonomy is one of many forces steering the future of the auto industry.

Google and other automakers continue to test their driverless cars on the streets of California – and now Texas – but they have one major question to answer before reaching the consumer: who’s really in the driver’s seat when there’s an accident? As it turns out, this isn’t just a science blunder; it’s also a question of ethics.

In an article from Bloomberg, Keith Naughton boils the ethical dilemma down to say that, “the problem with giving an an autonomous automobile the power to make consequential decisions is that, like the robots of science fiction, a self-driving car still lacks empathy and the ability to comprehend nuance.”

Google released a driverless car report in May, and it disclosed that over the past 6 years and 1.8 million miles (autonomous and manual) traveled, its vehicles had been in 12 accidents. Google went on to say that like 94% of all auto accidents, these were the fault of human error, and not the autonomous vehicle.

Google’s move to extend its testing to Austin, TX was a critical step, according to Lance Whitney of CNET. By expanding their testing area, the vehicles will be faced with new navigational challenges and changing driving conditions.

Location changes are only one measure being taken to improve how these cars share the road with manual human drivers. In his article, Whitney shares intel from a Google spokeswoman who described the defensive driving behavior that they build into their vehicles so that they inherently avoid actions that could cause an accident.

In our Driverless Car Confessions series, IEEE Fellow Alberto Broggi took viewers beyond Mountainview and Austin, as he traveled from Parma, Italy to Shanghai, China. Broggi’s work is specifically related to artificial vision. He engineers artificial vision by placing small – almost invisible – cameras throughout the vehicles to help simulate perception.

Broggi stressed the importance of training cars on environmental perception – knowing what challenges exist in particular destinations. His trip through urban and rural roads, for example, helped train his vehicle on different traffic conditions, as well as changes in terrain and weather.

Auto giants from Ford to Tesla have recently joined Google in commenting on their own autonomous ambitions, and while we’re still years away from autonomous cars conquering highway roads – Google cars are currently capped at 25 miles per hour – driverless cars could help save lives when they eventually – 10 years or so down the line, according to the Boston Consulting Group – become the norm.

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