How Close Are Autonomous Cars & Are Self-Driving Cars Really a Good Idea?
Date Posted: 25 August 2022
Not that long ago, the idea of a car that drives itself was the work of science fiction. Although, with continued technological advancements, a world of autonomous or self-driving cars doesn’t seem quite so far fetched anymore. But are we really at the precipice of a new driving reality? And are self driving cars even a good idea?
How Close Are Autonomous Cars Really?
To answer this question, it’s important to clarify what your idea of autonomous or self driving means when it comes to cars. For instance, Tesla has promoted that its vehicles come with an ‘Autopilot’ feature that “reduces your overall workload as a driver.” However, in the eyes of the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE), this is not true automation.
What Are the Defined Levels of Car Automation?
The SAE has outlined 6 levels of car automation. Level 0 is your average car with no self-driving features. At the other end is Level 5, where the car is fully automated and drives much like a person would. Between these extremes, human guidance or intervention is required to ensure the safety of all road users. For instance, the Mercedes-Benz E Class has Level 2 automation because of its cruise control features. A driver is still required to prompt the vehicle to undertake actions like accelerating, braking and changing lanes. They must also maintain contact with the steering wheel at all times or the car will stop. This is an integral safety component but it places the bulk of the driving workload onto the human, rather than the autonomous car.
Can a Machine Learn Like a Human?
We are continuing to see, though, car manufacturers strive for that full Level 5 self-driving car. In fact, Tesla claims that its latest vehicles have the ability to be just that. But can a car really handle the varied environments and situations that drivers deal with on a daily basis?
Driving is a complex experience. There are numerous factors to be aware of at once: from other road users and their present and potential behaviour, to the unexpected, like cargo falling from a truck or traffic lights failing. Self-driving car software is trained to recognise objects and road conditions, along with many simulated scenarios. But, concerns remain about the technology’s ability to act appropriately when the unexpected occurs. It’s this inability to fully match a driver’s capabilities that continues to hold back the reality of highways populated by autonomous cars. In fact, a Level 4 autopilot car is likely still a long way off, according to industry experts. This is because of these issues around teaching the AI to drive as a person would.
How Much Safer Is a Self-Driving Car?
This question of machine learning plays a huge role in safety concerns around autopilot cars. And these concerns seem warranted. Data from July 2021 to May 2022 shows there were more than 500 accidents involving autonomous vehicles (either with partial self-driving abilities or full autonomy) in America. These incidents are likely as a result of situations the AI could not understand. At the same time, there are ethical safety concerns, such as Mercedes-Benz stating their cars will act in the driver’s interests, rather than a pedestrian’s, if an emergency situation arises.
But there are also safety issues around whether autonomous cars can be hacked. The advanced AI software can be manipulated or confused, putting drivers and other road users at risk. Manufacturers need to regularly roll out software updates to protect their self-driving cars from being compromised.
Will We Be Able to Accept Self-Driving Cars?
These safety concerns have a knock-on effect, stalling when we can expect autonomous cars to be an everyday reality. This is because while manufacturers struggle to shore up and prove the safety of self-driving cars, governments and policy makers across the world are watching.
Presently, Australia’s legislation does not allow for self-driving vehicles above Level 2. We are restricted to vehicles where a driver is operating it. But, the National Transport Commission (NTC) is seeking to bring about a national regulatory body to ensure this new technology can be used safely on our roads. This would require cars to pass a number of tests in controlled and uncontrolled environments to prove their safety. While creating this framework isn’t impossible, it will take time. In fact, the NTC does not expect to have these rules in place until 2026.
Another hurdle to overcome is general public opinion. The average Australian needs to be convinced that autonomous cars are safe and a worthwhile option. This can then increase demand on legislators and regulators to revise existing laws and policies to allow for automation on the road. At the same time, manufacturers would be encouraged to pursue more advanced technology to make a safe Level 5 option. Unfortunately, a recent survey has the nation almost evenly divided on whether driverless cars are safe. Clearly, this is a significant hurdle the industry needs to overcome.
So, Will We Be Embracing Autonomous Cars Come 2026?
In our opinion, as an Australian car parts shop with more than 20 years in the automotive industry, autonomous cars may take a little while yet to become commonplace in Australia. There are many factors to consider and get under control before we’ll reach that heralded era of getting to kick back and relax while your car gets you to work, picks up the kids, and makes sure you get home safely after a night out.