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Symposium Mulls Problems Autonomous Vehicles Could Create

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Google Robocar Racetrack Ride

The photographer writes: "I got to race around in the back seat of one of the Google robocars, and it was thrilling."

At a recent daylong symposium held in Santa Clara, California, legal scholars, government regulators, and Silicon Valley technology experts discussed problems likely to arise once self-driving cars are in wide use on the roadways. The symposium, held last week, was sponsored by Santa Clara University’s Law Review and High Tech Law Institute.

Self-driving cars — which Google calls autonomous vehicles — whose computerized systems would replace human drivers, are already “largely workable and could greatly limit human error, which causes most of the 33,000 deaths and 1.2 million injuries that now occur each year on the nation’s roads,” reports John Markoff in the Business Day/Technology section of The New York Times.

In his January 23 article, “Collision in the Making Between Self-Driving Cars and How the World Works,” Markoff mentions some issues raised at the symposium:

What happens if a police officer wants to pull one of these vehicles over? When it stops at a four-way intersection, would it be too polite to take its turn ahead of aggressive human drivers (or equally polite robots)? What sort of insurance would it need? […]

There will also be unpredictable technological risks, several participants said. For example, future autonomous vehicles will rely heavily on global positioning satellite data and other systems, which are vulnerable to jamming by malicious computer hackers.

Despite the reservations the symposium participants had, there are other people who can’t wait for self-driving cars to be available to buy, such as Molly Wood, an executive editor at CNET, who is totally enthusiastic about the technology. In a column for CNET entitled “Self-driving cars: Yes, please! Now, please!,” she acknowledges those people who say they don’t trust self-driving cars, and others who enjoy driving too much to hand the steering wheel over to a computer.

But Wood is emphatically not in those camps. She writes:

I love to drive. And yet, I cannot *wait* for self-driving cars. Question is: who will bring them to the masses first? And how soon? […]

Let’s try to separate the mind from the machine, because trust me: mainstream adoption of automated cars will help improve the environment, use less fuel, reduce traffic to virtually zero, save billions of dollars per year, and most importantly: save a lot of lives and limbs.

This is the kind of argument that we in the geek community inherently understand. Computers are better at certain things than humans are. They don’t get competitive, stressed out, angry, confused, or drunk — and they are perfectly capable of texting while driving, unlike us. They can negotiate merges, calculate stopping distance, maintain speed, and react more quickly than we can. This isn’t just about bad driving, although self-driving cars could solve that problem, too. It’s about human inefficiency, and safety.

Markoff quotes Stanford University’s Beiker as saying completely autonomous vehicles might exist on limited roads in 20 years. Wood writes that GM predicts fully autonomous vehicles by 2020, whereas Audi is moving towards semi-autonomous drive mode, and BMW and Volkswagen plan on incremental rollouts of semi-autonomous features, with some available now.

A Volvo engineer was quoted in Digital Trends this week as saying he would like to see fully autonomous driving sooner rather than later, Wood reports. She suggests that carmakers equip all new cars with autonomous mode by 2015 and give drivers the option to turn it on as needed. She also suggests mandatory auto-mode zones or drive times, such as “The San Francisco Bay Bridge between 6 a.m. and 10 a.m.?”

In his New York Times piece, Markoff writes that some have questioned the term “autonomous vehicles” as not being quite correct: “It won’t truly be an autonomous vehicle,” said Brad Templeton, a software designer and a consultant for the Google project, “until you instruct it to drive to work and it heads to the beach instead.”

Here is a video of BMW’s highly automated driving mode:

Image by jurvetson (Steve Jurvetson), used under its Creative Commons license.

 

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