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Autonomous Cars: More Questions Than Answers

Posted April 01, 2015 9:43 AM by HUSH

At this point, autonomous cars are a given, right? Pretty much every automotive discussion needs to involve the impending availability of driverless autos. This coming summer (if it ever truly arrives), Tesla will supply all models with an over-the-air software upgrade that will provide cars with some of the rudimentary concepts of driverless tech: park-and retrieve and highway autopilot. While highway autopilot has been featured on some high-end brands before, it's interesting to see that Tesla has been preparing their products for this essentially from the beginning.

These vehicles will constitute an L3 vehicle according to the Society for Automotive Engineers, which has devised 6 classes of automated vehicles. An L0 vehicle has no automation whatsoever, while an L5 has complete automation with zero human involvement. Within this range vehicles require varying degrees of human intervention. By 2035, IHS predicts that there will be 51.4 million L5 vehicles on global roadways (though it's a fraction of the expected 2 billion passenger vehicles overall).

Many words have been spent on the technology developments that need to take place to make the autonomous car a reality, as well as how automakers are going to keep them safe from hackers. Less text has been spent on all the peripheral changes that need to take place in how we regulate and maintain our autos.

First, will autonomous cars completely abolish the driver's license? Obviously some form of government ID will be needed, but taking an exam to earn a permit to learn how to drive will be superfluous. However, what's to stop an adventurous 7-year-old from driving to the toy store, or a rebellious teen from driving away from home? Sure, a parental control and GPS tracker can solve this, but how do we know when individuals are mature enough to make their own destination decisions? Do we lower the "driving age"? Do we let parents decide when kids can ride around in the auto-car? California's DMV has offered autonomous vehicle licenses as of last fall, but only to qualified individuals who already possess a typical license. This clearly won't and can't be the status quo once L5s are common.

Personal responsibility remains a huge threat on the road. Too many people text while driving or drive drunk. Thankfully, autonomous cars will eliminate these threats completely. Heck, they'll probably eliminate fender benders and door dings from parking to close too. So what does this do to auto insurance? Do rates bottom out, or is the concept eliminated all together? (Insurance giants aren't going to go down quietly.) After all, in an L5 vehicle, the human will have zero responsibility for what happens on the road. So if an accident happens, injury-causing or not, who pays? The automaker? The programmers?

Also, assuming that L5 vehicles overtake the car market en mass, what happens to the billions of driver-needing cars around the world? Are they converted to be autonomous? Are they outlawed? Elon Musk expects they'll become illegal, but here in the U.S., it will be like trying take our guns-not going to happen in a country built on firearms and backfire. And are the millions of classic cars and enthusiasts going to accept that their hobby/passion isn't the same? Not likely.

Clearly, the autonomous car revolution offers many, many more questions than solutions. Inevitably each of these will questions will have an answer, but the autonomous car market may be chaotic in the meantime.

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Re: Autonomous Cars: More Questions Than Answers

04/04/2015 10:42 AM

I think it's true that most people alive now would not like an autonomous car, at least folks not from big cities that are already dependent on public transportation. But from generation to generation, people and attitudes change. When I was a teen many years ago, my peer and I counted the days until our 16th birthdays when we could drive. I've noticed that nowadays, kids are not anxious to drive at 16 and many don't bother to get a license until later.

So when all of us are dead who remember the fun of driving for ourselves, autonomous cars will be accepted as part of life. Perhaps there will be amusement parks where the adventurous can drive in a special course with energy absorbing bumpers so that it will be completely safe.

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