Self-Driving Cars Advance toward Automated Future -- with Bumps along the Road

The big auto companies — and a few techies like Google — are locked in competition to see who will dominate the coming self-driving market and the automated transportation future. The companies may imagine that cities will buy whole fleets of autonomous cars which will replace the privately owned vehicles that clutter up the streets and parking garages — and yes, the transportation landscape could work out that way to some degree. Or perhaps many people won’t want to give up private ownership of their vehicle because a car can also be a closet for necessary stuff, as I experienced as a commuting college student. Either way, utopian city planners fear (or hope) that overpopulation will lead to a parking armageddon in cities, and community cars owned by the government will save the day.

Below, a self-driving car navigates a Pittsburgh bridge as part of the years-long testing process.

At the other end, where the one percent live, some car designers visualize a deluxe living room on wheels for rich customers, like a Rolls Royce model, called an “amazingly ludicrous self-driving luxury vehicle.” A recent Bentley prototype has a holographic butler to serve as an interface with the machinery — user-friendly for the uber-wealthy.

Anyway, there’s big money being poured into the self-driving project, like the $1 billion pledged in February by Ford over five years to maintain its technical expertise at a high level. Therefore, any bumps along the way — namely accidents — that may slow progress to the industry-approved future are worrying to the people in charge.

A recent report from Fox News included some interesting facts, in particular that a human driver needs to take control of the car on average every eight-tenths of a mile. That frequency of human intervention doesn’t seem very self-drivey. Perhaps the technology still needs a lot of improvement before it’s ready for mass use.

WILLIAM LA JEUNESSE: Self-driving cars and trucks are still at least 3 years away, but the road getting there has had more than a few bumps. The latest — Friday in Arizona when a driver illegally made a left turn crashing into a self-driving Uber SUV. Two employees inside escaped injury.

UBER DRIVER: I hope this bring new jobs, I hope it brings convenience, safety.

LA JEUNESSE: Uber’s self-driving program arrived in Arizona in December after a dispute in California over mandatory accident reporting. Unlike California, Arizona doesn’t require a special permit for self-driving vehicles.

VOLVO SPOKESMAN: Once you are in self-driving mode, we want to make sure that you feel you still have control of the vehicle.

LA JEUNESSE: About six companies test autonomous cars in 13 states. And while there is no central repository of accident data, in December an Uber SUV did not see a stop light in San Francisco and sailed through a crosswalk. Last February a Google autonomous car sideswiped a bus while trying to pass. In May, a Tesla driver died in a self-driving crash, but investigators could not attribute it to the auto-pilot system.

THOMAS FREY, DA VINCI INSTITUTE: All the things that go wrong in the driverless car world are going to force us to create a much more safe and durable system.

LA JEUNESSE: According to the website Recode, Uber’s 43 self-driving cars travel up to 20,000 miles a week, but a human must still take control approximately every eight-tenths of a mile.

CHRISTOPHER HART, NTSB CHAIRMAN: The theory that if you remove the driver, you remove driver error — there are several defects to that theory. First of all, the automation has to work. If the automation doesn’t work, then what? If the automation fails, will it fail safe?

FREY: Airplanes are much safer than car transportation today. It’s going to take a while before we get driverless vehicles to the same level of safety as air transportation.

LA JEUNESSE: Now as for that accident Friday in Arizona, police did cite the human driver for failing to yield to the computer-sided car, and Uber is back in the test markets. . . Tempe, Pittsburgh and San Francisco.

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