It’s Time to Think About Autonomous Vehicles

This article originated in the Sep/Oct 2016 issue of Safe Ride News.

I’d have to have my head planted firmly in the sand if my initial skepticism about self-driving vehicles hasn’t budged over time. In a few short years, what has gone from bold­ predictions by certain tech giants has developed into mainstream acceptance. Target dates for various rollouts of autonomous vehicles seem right around the corner, rather than in some sci-fi future. In September, the DOT released safety guidelines for autonomous vehicle performance, including a model for state policies.

So today, I’d say I feel a sense of astonishment, if not full acceptance. From the start, my incredulity has been challenged by the list of respected individuals and companies that have become fully committed to the success of this new technology. (See the box for a summary of such efforts.) However, is all this activity spurred by the fact that autonomous vehicles are so promising? Or is it more driven by fear of missing out on what experts expect to be a multi-trillion dollar a year industry in the future?

It doesn’t really matter, as regardless of the motivation, it seems clear that this is really going to happen. So I think it is time to ponder: How will this affect children?

Pundits promise that autonomous vehicles will drastically reduce the number and severity of crashes. Without a doubt, that will ultimately be a good thing for children. This assurance couldn’t come at a better time, as traffic fatalities rose an alarming 7.2 percent in 2015, the largest year-to-year increase since 1966! (Of course, since the 2015 figure was an increase on a total-fatalities number that has been steadily falling for many years, 2015 did not see a record number of people killed on roadways. Nonetheless, it is of great concern to see this marked reversal in the trend.)

Since NHTSA estimates that human behavior contributes to 94 percent of all crashes (as opposed to mechanical failure, roadway hazards, or other factors), taking the wheel (and the gas pedal and brakes) away from humans seems to be a natural place to look for improvement. NHTSA found that, among the 35,092 people killed in crashes in 2015, nearly half were not wearing a seat belt, and nearly a third involved drunk driving or speeding.  

Still, it’s hard to get past the feeling that we are about to be the proverbial guinea pigs. It would be naïve to think that it won’t take a number of years to work out all the kinks. The June death of a Tesla owner who was over-confident (against the manufacturer’s warnings) in the autopilot feature of his Model S seems likely to be a warning of things to come. Even years into the future, computers can’t be expected to be infallible. We can only hope that these events will be minor hiccups and not a rash of major events.

Then there’s the fact that it will take several years, maybe decades, for the majority of vehicles on the road to be autonomous. Being launched on roadways shared with human-driven vehicles is bound to present extra challenges to the success of driverless vehicles. Recently, an autonomous Lexus SUV being tested by Google in Mountain View, California, was in a serious crash when it was t-boned in an intersection by a human-driven van that ran through a light that had been red for at least six seconds. Luckily, no passengers were present and no one was injured, but this won’t always be the case. When such interactions happen, as they most surely will, how tolerant will society be of injuries and deaths in vehicles in which victims were unable to take evasive action?

Naturally, we are regularly reassured that these failures in the new system will be more than offset by the reduction in crashes caused by human behavior. But, assuming we navigate through this transition and realize the touted benefits, what does this all mean for CPS? I’m sure I don’t have the answers, but I do know that change often comes with unintended consequences. I also know that, despite being our most precious cargo, children too often are an afterthought with respect to vehicle design.

Therefore, as CPSTs, I think we should start thinking about how children will fare in this sea change. A few questions come to mind:

  • Will our gains in safety belt and CR use rates suffer in an environment in which people become less concerned about crashes? Isn’t it likely that the family of the future will come to behave in their cars in much the same way passengers today ride in RVs—feeling free to move about, unrestrained?
  • If cars of the future have no steering wheel, the interior design of vehicles is bound to change dramatically, as engineers are freed of the strict constraints of a driver position. Will redesigned seating be more or less CR friendly? Will vehicle designers, during such a heady time, remember to take CRs into account?
  • How will other safety features, like air bags and head restraints, change in this new environment? Will any of these changes affect how CRs are used?
  • Will all vehicles ultimately become autonomous? Imagine the implications for the school bus field, for instance.

I’d love to hear from other CPS prognosticators. While we might simply be swept up in the wild ride that lies ahead, I would urge CPSTs to do all we can to be proactive regarding child safety education in the years to come. As inevitable as autonomous vehicles might be, I would venture to guess that families might be among the later adopters. But when that day surely comes, we’ll want to be ready.


Autonomous Vehicles in the News

These days, autonomous vehicles are big business, and it seems that all the major players are involved. Here’s a look at some of the companies involved and what they are working on.

Google: Google has a fleet of Lexus SUVs and smaller pod-like vehicles being tested by its experts in California. Earlier this year, it announced a major deal to modify 100 Chrysler Pacificas (the newly redesigned minivan) to add to the fleet.

Tesla: Tesla activated software for an optional autonomous mode, called Autopilot, in vehicles back in 2015. The electric-car maker can regularly update its software on existing vehicles over the airwaves. (See article on page___ for news on the temperature control feature of its latest update.)

Ford: Ford has announced 2021 as the target date for selling fully autonomous vehicles, which will have no steering wheel or pedals. However, these initial sales would be exclusively for commercial ride-hailing purposes; individual purchasers would have to wait for an undisclosed number of years later.

BMW: Like Ford, BMW plans to release fully autonomous cars by 2021, in partnership with computer-chip maker Intel and an Israeli firm, Mobileye. BMW has received permission to test autonomous vehicles in California.

Uber: Pittsburgh is the location of Uber’s first foray into autonomous ride hailing. The company says that customers in that city will be able to summon autonomous Ford Focuses and Volvo XC90s by the end of summer 2016 (by the time of publication of this issue). For now, the vehicle will have a human driver on board as a backup, but Uber states that these vehicles will eventually run without a human operator. Uber has also struck a $300 million deal with Volvo to co-develop more autonomous vehicles.

Lyft: Uber’s ride-hailing competitor, Lyft, is developing driverless taxis with General Motors. Like the Uber/Volvo partnership, this arrangement leverages the strengths of each, such as GM’s autonomous vehicle development (including its recent ownership of autonomous vehicle startup, Cruise Automation) and Lyft’s ride-matching, routing, and payment software.

Source: Los Angeles Times