Tom Crosby: Automated vehicles face a rough road to success

Tom Crosby


The second death in an automated driving car with a human inside occurred recently in Tempe, Arizona –  a sure indication that the road to eliminating vehicle related deaths through automation will not be easy.

The goal is laudable. Reduce the 38,000 traffic deaths a year.

However, new technology always comes with risk.

Powerful airbags caused deaths when first implemented. Anti-lock brakes used to come with insurance discounts before insurance companies found drivers didn’t know how to use them. (Steer where you want to go, not where you fear to go.)

The scramble by automakers to be first to popularize a road-ready vehicle driven by technology and not a human is rife with conflict and challenges.

The conflict comes with no national standards from the federal government so that research and testing will be consistent.

There is also no nationally required reporting of failures so the public – and government – can follow the progress.

States can enact their own guidelines and some have done so with stricter controls and reporting of failures, like California, while other states, like Arizona, have an almost hands-off approach to letting the chips fall where they may until a winner is named.

The technology and communication challenges are scary.

Here is a list of challenging hurdles, not listed in any priority.

  • Using the Arizona death as an example, good drivers are taught to always scan the road ahead and the roadsides for vehicles, pedestrians, bicyclists, etc. that may make an unexpected wrong move.

It is the same watching on the interstate when driving in the left lane and passing to make sure the vehicle being passed doesn’t turn in front of you without warning.

Will technology capture the clues from the driver being passed – such as when he looks in his rearview mirror instead of beside him or he brakes slightly due to the car in front of him?

  • Every time a small town, city or state changes a speed limit, or the direction of traffic or has a road or bridge under construction, it will need to be communicated to the automated car. These updates do not always occur today. Will every town and city in America be willing and able to report changes in a timely fashion?

I have driven dozens of upscale new cars that have inaccurate speed limits on the GPS for some city streets in Winchester, Front Royal and Strasburg.

Some observers say this is among the bigger challenges because of the need for uniformity to the car’s technology to receive notice of any infrastructure changes, permanent or temporary.

  • If hackers can get into the Department of Defense computers how hard will be to be hack an automated car? It may be future carjacking will no longer by done by gun, but by computer.
  • Dozens of new cars with lane-keeping technology are not able to maintain control back to the center after a sharp swerve outside the lane’s painted lines. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safeway has said this technology isn’t yet a strong safety feature in current vehicles.
  • Weather remains a huge challenge. When the lasers, cameras and sensors become frozen in sleet or obscured by fog or snow, they cannot function. The car will have to park. Some researchers have said their automated cars may not have a steering wheel. What happens then?
  • Human drivers are unpredictable, hence the 40,000 traffic deaths a year. There will be a risky mix when automated vehicles mingle with human drivers behind the wheel of an estimated 240 million cars and trucks averaging between 10-12 years old.
  • Where is the responsibility when a tragic accident occurs, like what happened in Tempe? Cadillac has used heat-seeking technology, similar to the military, that shows humans and animals on the car’s dashboard map display at night. Did Uber have it and if not, why not? Where were the hands of the human driver? On the wheel? Some experts say the automated vehicle needs to record what it did – or did not do – and why this occurred. This would enable a precise review of the system’s actions and assign responsibility.

Insurance companies and plaintiff lawyers are sure to battle in court in future years over the question of fault.

Lastly, the bottom line is the frenzied search for a truly automated vehicle is a juggernaut that cannot be halted. Automated driving will happen and it will be a good thing when it can do so safely.

But the lack of responsible oversight needs to stop. Public roads should not be the testing ground for technology. There needs to be public airing and understanding of all challenges, full disclosure reporting of all automated vehicle failures and a safer place found to test these vehicles without any risk to human life.

Without the above, more human suffering will undoubtedly occur.

Tom Crosby is a former journalist and communications director for AAA Carolinas. He has been reviewing cars since 1996, and has been active in traffic safety issues for more than 30 years.