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Many auto manufacturers, tech companies, and legislators predict that by 2021, self-driving cars will take to the roads, further accelerating the future of transportation.
Before that happens, one topic that needs further attention is the evolution and roll-out of self-driving technology. Today, many cars offer some form of self-driving capabilities — all of which require constant driver attention — and in many cases there is a gap between what drivers think the car can do and what the car can actually do.
Here are three things the public needs to consider when it comes to the self-driving conversation.
1. The stages of self-driving are varied
Klashwerks recently conducted a survey that found 74 percent of respondents are familiar with the term “self-driving car.” However, many people don’t realize there are various levels of self-driving cars, ranging from semi-autonomous to a fully autonomous car that won’t require the attention of any driver. For instance, Tesla’s autopilot feature falls into the Level 2 category: It lets the cars accelerate, maintain lane positions, and change lanes without input from the driver — but the human must keep their hands on the wheel and eyes on the road. Level 4 cars, on the other hand, are nearly autonomous; many auto manufacturers have their sights set on this, even in the short term.
2. Semi-autonomous isn’t foolproof
While many people want a future that’s autonomous, we need to take a step back and evaluate the progress so far. Early tests of self-driving, driverless, or semi-autonomous vehicles have resulted in some accidents, such as Google’s self-driving crash, Uber’s self-driving cars running red lights or driving in the wrong direction, and Tesla’s autopilot accident that killed its driver. Significant moments like these have the power to affect how people view the benefits of self-driving cars and the technology behind them.
While some progress has been made — such as Uber’s self-driving cars increasing the number of miles driven autonomously — drivers still need to be prepared to take over for the computer driving their cars in case of emergencies or critical events. In order for self-driving technology to progress, real-world experience is required, so hats off to Uber for pushing the envelope on this. The big risk, however, is that a major accident, perhaps involving a family or children, could set back progress if legislators react aggressively to slow everything down.
3. Distracted driving is still dangerous
Distracted driving is, unfortunately, already a big problem. According to the NHTSA, the number of fatalities resulting from distracted driving have increased by 8.8 percent from 2014 to 2015. We also saw this in the Klashwerks survey, where half of the respondents admitted to talking on the phone while driving, and 17 percent guilty of texting behind the wheel. While regulations are being put in place to prevent these distractions, we can expect that people will continue to be distracted even with the advancements in self-driving. Self-driving technologies rely on the assumption that humans will be ready to step in and take control if something goes wrong. But, as this data shows us, drivers can still ignore warnings signs, like in the case of the fatal Tesla accident.
As companies continue to roll out self-driving technologies, we can expect each version to require less attention from the driver until they truly become self-driving cars. The danger grows as drivers become more complacent and less involved in driving the vehicle. Unlike airline pilots, who undergo years of training to take over when the automation fails, the average drivers may find themselves in an accident before they even think to pause the DVD they’re watching.
The advancements in self-driving technologies and the automotive revolution are no doubt exciting, but as these examples show us, safety needs to be better addressed to help move the industry forward and ensure the public is properly educated on the role they play in these technologies.
Russell Ure is the CEO and founder of Klashwerks, an engineering design and technology company focused on the emerging connected car market.
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