Uber’s “Self-Driving” Test Cars to Be Overseen by Driver and Engineer

Scientific American reports on "self-driving" car technology and discusses regulatory hurdles to this technology with Marc Scribner. 

Uber’s decision to expose the public to the technology is not without inherent risks. Earlier this summer a Tesla Model S was involved in a fatal crash when its Autopilot system was activated. Tesla’s Autopilot can steer down a highway, change lanes and adjust speed in response to traffic conditions, although the company has made clear since the accident that its technology does not replace the need for a driver. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) is investigating that crash. It remains to be seen if deploying the technology was a right decision or if Tesla was too fast to market, says Marc Scribner, research fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a public policy organization. “Tesla’s rapid data collection period was able to blow other developers out of the water,” Scribner says. According to Tesla, the company has data from about 130 million miles of public road testing with Autopilot engaged, whereas Google says it has somewhere around two million road-tested miles and another three million miles per day in simulated testing.

As companies move closer to deploying vehicles for public use—without the additional company-hired safety drivers and engineers—states and developers will need to look at existing traffic and safety regulations. For example, most states actively prohibit televisions and similar devices in view of drivers, with narrow exceptions for safety and mapping screens, Scribner says. If the goal is to eventually reduce the engineer crew size of their test vehicles, legal obstacles may pose a problem. Under the current rules cars would either need to maintain a two-person crew size or maintain the driver and enable remote monitoring, Scribner says.

The NHTSA is putting the finishing touches on its new nonbinding guidance for autonomous cars, which it expects to release later this month. Based on that advice and growing data showing the real-world capabilities of these vehicles, states and developers will determine if the existing traffic and transit laws are sufficient or if changes are needed. “Over the next 10 years it will be anyone’s game,” Scribner says. “No one has commercialized the higher levels of automation, and it will be interesting to see who the first one will be.”

Read the full article at Scientific American