This article originally appeared on The Hill on August 26, 2017.
How close are we to introducing self-driving cars to the open road? Probably further than you think.
While advancements are made in the industry daily, the technology is advancing light-years ahead of what laws and regulations can keep up with. We’ve been talking about self-driving cars for so long now that the conversation has quite literally peaked, with Gartner’s 2016 Hype Cycleshowing that consumers are starting to wonder, “Where is it already?” Meanwhile Gartner also estimates the tech is still at least 10 years away from mass adoption.
Before we get ahead of ourselves, consumers must consider the reality of what introducing self-driving cars to a road of human drivers would really mean, or risk missing out on genuine improvements in new car technology that will come out during the next couple of years.
Lack of infrastructure
Today, the U.S. government does not have the infrastructure to support the self-driving car revolution. Before self-driving cars are even allowed to be on the same road as human drivers, there’s a great deal of government regulation to consider.
The first thing on most people’s minds when discussing self-driving cars is, of course, safety. The unfortunate reality is that introducing fully autonomous cars into an existing world of human drivers leaves a lot of room for human error. Human drivers can oftentimes be reckless, distracted or even drunk — and technology for self-driving cars is not yet advanced enough for them to drive defensively among humans.
As the technology currently stands, a fully autonomous vehicle has the ability to independently drive a designated route, but not to make decisions as a human would. For example, one would never veer off course in pursuit of a faster arrival time. It would, however, stop if it encounters an obstacle in its path. By first leveraging public transportation, the government will be able to introduce autonomous vehicles on designated routes to the same roads as human drivers without endangering individuals. Some of that infrastructure already exists, such as bus-only lanes, so humans and autonomous public transportation wouldn’t be driving in the same lane. That would, of course, still depend on how strictly humans avoid them.
We love to drive
Here’s the big issue with self-driving cars: People really like to drive. Most car manufacturers’ marketing campaigns are based on it. It’s not something consumers are necessarily dying to give up. While older audiences are still on the fence about relinquishing control of the car, younger audiences are more open to the idea, as long as they don’t have to give up complete control. In a recent survey, 19 percent of consumers said they liked the idea but that they would never purchase one. They would, however, consider purchasing a car that actively helps the driving experience, allowing them to choose when the car acts autonomously.
These findings suggest that consumers won’t be on board for purchasing a vehicle that they cannot drive. Instead, they’d prefer to turn on an autonomous capability when, let’s say, they’re stuck in traffic or they have work to complete on their commute. That said, the current technology and infrastructure do not support a model in which humans choose when the car becomes autonomous. That would start with designated self-driving lanes (similar to carpool lanes) or another way for autonomous vehicles to remain on the same road as human drivers while driving separately from them.
Need for regulation
Just as we’ve done for cars driven by humans, autonomous cars controlled by individuals will require a great deal of lawmaking and regulation. It’s no secret that it takes a long time for a law to come to fruition, and even though humans have been driving their own cars for more than 100 years, we are still introducing new laws on how to make it safer for everyone on the road. Self-driving vehicles, for public or private use, will be no different.
A realistic first step in introducing autonomous vehicles would be with a rollout of an autonomous public transportation fleet, but consumers must consider the gravity of what that would entail. Let’s say independent drivers would need to stay completely clear of autonomous bus lanes: How would those be designated? Would there be a physical obstacle preventing that? How much would it cost? Would it be safer, and if so, would it cost less than continuing to pay a bus driver (which comes with the added benefit of giving someone a job)?
These are all questions that have yet to be answered, and the time it will take to answer them all is still undetermined, but they all maintain one common obstacle to overcome: The error of human drivers.
Russell Ure is the founder and CEO of Klashwerks. Prior to starting Klashwerks, Russell was CEO of Blacksumac where he and his team developed Piper, the world’s first consumer self monitored home security product. In 2014 Blacksumac and Piper were acquired by iControl Networks.