Seven Problems Self-Driving Cars Need to Overcome

June 19, 2018

in

Road Safety

by

Adam Luehrs

Updated 19 June: Added item 7 with survey data relating to trust in self-driving cars.

Self-driving cars are the future of the highways, back roads and streets of the world. The only question is whether or not we can all expect to go along on a bumpy ride while the technology is being rolled out. There are many scenarios that self-driving cars just aren’t ready to overcome yet. How far away are we from perfect self-driving automobiles? Take a look at the five problems self-driving cars need to overcome before they can become mainstream products.

1. Eye Contact

Anyone who has ever spent time in a major city knows that close calls between drivers and pedestrians are simply part of life. One of the only ways that cars are able to pass through intersections in areas of high congestion is to make eye contact with pedestrians. In fact, those subtle glances are what keep us all safe day after day as man and machine interact on the pavement. Can self-driving cars replicate this connection? It’s hard to tell if algorithms and sensors can ever come close to the instant adjustments that can be made as a result of simple human-to-human eye contact.

Eye contact also helps us to predict a person’s state of mind while they are on the road. For instance, we may be able to notice that a driver appears distracted or emotional while they’re driving near us. That signals to us that we should keep a distance from a car or anticipate sporadic movements. Being able to predict the behaviors of other drivers using eye contact or by reading body language is also essential when it comes to merging into lanes, turning at intersections or reacting to sudden changes in traffic patterns. Self-driving cars simply don’t have the emotional intelligence to make predictions based on behavior the way humans do. In fact, humans are so good at predicting emotions while driving that most of the time we do it completely subconsciously.

2. Judgment Calls

Sometimes drivers have to make instant decisions when they are faced with obstacles on the road. It’s pretty easy to program a car to make an emergency stop if it detects an object in the middle of the road. However, a car may have a hard time calculating the likelihood of being hit from behind and causing a pileup on the highway due to quick braking. What’s more, automobiles won’t necessarily be able to make judgment calls about choosing between swerving and hitting a child in the road versus hitting an empty cardboard box that’s blocking the lane.

Even a judgment that is technically the best judgment based on the information that a self-driving car has to work with isn’t necessarily the best judgment in real-world terms. So many decisions require a human component that is derived from having familiarity with situations and understanding consequences. It will take much trial and error until we can be sure that self-driving automobiles are really capable of this task.

3. Snow

Something as simple and basic as snow can really make things complicated in a driverless world. Anyone who has ever spent time in a place where snow is common knows how quickly powder can cover the roads. Lane dividers disappear under even the thinnest layer of snow. This can be a real problem when you consider that self-driving cars use cameras to track the lines on the pavement. While humans are capable of simply following the natural curve of the road, driverless cars aren’t quite there yet. Even large puddles or slightly flooded roads could cause a self-driving car to be confused. Not much of a problem in Queensland but number 4 might be...

4. Kangaroos

This is a uniquely Australian problem and one that Volvo have discovered as part of their international tests.

"We've noticed with the kangaroo being in mid-flight ... when it's in the air it actually looks like it's further away, then it lands and it looks closer," Volvo Australia's technical manager David Pickett

Animal detection is being developed in self-driving systems across the world but Australia's kangaroo's present a unique problem. Most systems use the ground as a reference point for the animals location and most animals stay on the ground (cats, dogs, moose etc) but our Kangaroo's hop right off the ground and the systems struggle to tell how close they are and where they will land. Volvo is certainly taking it seriously so hopefully this issue will be resolved before self-driving cars start becoming truly available in Australia.

 

5. Legal Responsibility

One of the most difficult aspects of transitioning to self-driving cars is the legal gray area that exists. Even a car that technically functions perfectly according to road laws and mechanical performance could still perform an operation that causes negative results. There are many questions regarding who would be held responsible in this instance.

Automobile manufacturers can more or less expect continuous lawsuits once self-driving cars enter the picture. In addition, any company that uses self-driving cars to transport goods or provide transportation will also be vulnerable to lawsuits stemming from any wrongful actions taken by those cars. The unfortunate reality is that it will be hard for pricing to come down if manufacturers are bogged down by high legal costs and low sales in the early years.

6. Cost

Not every issue that self-driving cars will have to overcome is based on technology. Price is actually going to be one of the biggest hurdles facing self-driving vehicles. The amount of research and development that will need to be continuously done will make producing just one car a very pricey process. This means that self-driving cars will have restrictive price points for several years during their initial release. It is uncertain if enough individuals and businesses will be willing to invest in a technology that is so new and uncertain. Manufacturers will have to find some way to bring down the price enough to allow for self-driving cars to become mainstream options. A likely scenario is that individuals won't be the main owner of self driving cars. Instead it's likely that fleets of cars from ride-share companies such as Uber will provide access to self-driving cars and reduce the demand for car ownership.

7. Lack of trust

Relinquishing control and putting your life in the hands of a machine is a big step for people to take. Their is an acceptance that normal driving carries some risks as we, driver's, hold a certain level of control. The strong focus media focus following individual accidents involving Tesla Autopilot or the fatal self-driving Uber accident in Nevada show that the tolerance for mistakes from machines is far lower than we tolerate with human drivers. The market to pay extra for a self-driving vehicle or use shared fleets such as the Tesla Network or an autonomous Uber may be greatly reduced if people don't trust they will be kept safe.

We surveyed 980 Australian drivers in 2018 and discovered only 21% of Australian drivers currently would trust an autonomous car. The majority of drivers want to have control of their vehicle at own times which casts doubt on the demand for semi-autonomous tech such as that used in Tesla Autopilot which is likely to trickle down cheaper models over the coming years.

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Can Self-Driving Cars Overcome These Obstacles?

The technology behind self-driving cars is still extremely new. While these obstacles are certainly challenging, there's little doubt that self-driving cars will be a reality in a matter of years. The constant innovation that is happening in the worlds of technology and automation ensure that these obstacles will one day be seen as small bumps in the road on the way to a driverless world.

Adam Luehrs
Rebecca Earl

Based in Oceanside, California, Adam Luehrs has lived in France, Argentina and Colombia. When Adam's not working, he likes traveling to new and exciting destinations.

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