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The Autonomous Vehicle: from Sci-fi to Reality Development

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The year is 3000. Cars are obsolete; zero-emission, self-driving pods have long since become the standard means of transportation. Such a world is no longer merely an object of science fiction, but a feasible reality in the not-so-distant future. Decades since the invention of cars, they have already evolved from primitive chunks of metal to computers on wheels. However, the convenience they bring comes with significant risks, and although the Terminator may be an extreme scenario, it is certainly reasonable to be cautious of the advancements of technology. As the use of autonomous vehicles become increasingly widespread, current legislation is not enough to regulate the dangers that will arise and thus new laws must be created.

With the development of autonomous vehicles, the concept of human-machine relationships, and subsequently the laws that govern these interactions, must change drastically. Unfamiliarity with the hazards of this newfound technology can result in horrific outcomes. The most notable example is the crash of a Tesla Model S on autopilot mode on May 7, 2016 that resulted in the death of 40-year-old Joshua Brown. The car’s sensors failed to detect a truck and semitrailer crossing its lane; it attempted to drive under the trailer and the roof was torn off, killing Brown. The only explanation for how Brown could have missed the 53-foot trailer is that he was testing the car’s capabilities. He had previously posted videos on his YouTube account showing off Tesla’s autopilot features, including one titled “Autopilot Saves Model S”, in which the sensors detected a side collision and automatically steered to avoid it. He had incorporated these features, which are only designed to be used in certain conditions, into regular use. According to witness testimony, there was sufficient time for Brown to prevent the crash but he showed no signs of slowing down, and most likely assumed that the car would break or maneuver to avoid the obstacle. What makes this event especially terrible is that it was completely preventable and caused by human overreliance rather than machine failure. This tragedy was a much-needed wake-up call for the general public, who greatly overestimates the abilities of autonomous vehicles due to their portrayal as newfangled technology in advertisements. In reality, full self-automation may not be possible for decades, and current technology is struggling with the extremely complex activity of driving.

Advertising and marketing laws in existence must simply expand to include self-driving cars and be more strictly defined so that companies cannot take advantage of ambiguous regulations to oversell their cars or present them in such a way that the average person unfamiliar with technical jargon can be enticed to buy a car without considering the possible risks. While corporations may fear impact on sales, this will not impede the real priorities of research and technological development. The most important thing is safety, and it is crucial for people to understand that currently “autopilot” is a very misleading term.

Unfortunately, in the instance of this Tesla crash, valuable data that could have led to insight on how to improve the car’s systems was lost. Although general vehicle performance data was recorded, “the Tesla Model S involved in this crash did not, nor was it required by regulation, contain an event data recorder”. The regulation referred to above is 49 CFR 5637, which deals with handling information collected through such means, but having an event data recorder on any car is not mandatory. In addition, “there is no commercially available tool for data retrieval and review of the ECU data. NTSB investigators had to rely on Tesla to provide the data in engineering units using proprietary manufacturer software.” This law must be changed; it is crucial that car companies and manufacturers are required to collect all data in these accidents, as this is important information that can be utilized to provide a better understanding of why such errors occurred and how to prevent future problems.

The specific data to be recorded should create an accurate image of not only the vehicle systems, but also record the actions of the driver. Furthermore, information collected through event data recorders must be systematically reported to the appropriate law enforcement or government agencies when incidents occur.

Although the majority of the blame falls upon Joshua Brown himself, manufacturers must modify the car’s design as it is possible to prevent humans from making such errors. The owner’s manual specifies the conditions in which self-driving can be used, but there are no safety features that will prevent a driver from using automation whenever they please. In this Tesla crash, the main cause was Brown’s lack of judgment and overreliance on the vehicle, but the “operational design…permitted his prolonged disengagement from the driving task and his use of the automation in ways inconsistent with guidance and warnings from the manufacturer”. The systems alerted Brown to take the wheel six minutes before the incident, and he ignored seven visual and six auditory warnings. Therefore, companies need to develop procedures wherein the car will stop at the nearest safest location after a driver disregards a certain number of warnings. In order for this to happen, manufacturers also need to install tracking cameras and sensors on the steering wheel and pedals, which can detect inattentiveness. These two aspects, emergency stopping and sensors need to be required and regulated by law. This incident proves that humans cannot always be trusted to decide when it is appropriate to make use of autonomous features, and therefore that responsibility must be left to the vehicle. As current self-driving cars are designed so that the majority of the liability falls on the driver in the event of a crash, there must be regulations on car designs to ensure that driverless features can only be activated in the situations they are intended to be used in and the driver is focused on the road even if they are not in control of the car.

Conclusion: Proponents of driverless-vehicle technology say that such vehicles will likely improve road safety, as most accidents result from human driver errors. They also point out that driverless cars have the potential to reduce traffic congestion while cutting pollution. These cars could even improve the mobility of the elderly and people with some kind of physical impairment.

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