Autonomous vehicles (AVs) technology has come of age and promises to revolutionize the way people commute by improving traffic flow and safety, easing road travel hassles, and reducing vehicle ownership. However, to achieve this goal, the autonomous vehicle industry will have to overcome a host of legal, ethical and engineering challenges.
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US Road Carnage Statistics
In 2011 alone, Americans were involved in 5.3 million auto crashes that caused 2.2 million injuries and 32,000 fatalities. Over the years, economic and societal losses accruing from these crashes have reached a whopping $871 billion. Sadly, the most common causes of vehicle crashes are preventable human actions and errors including speeding (21%), driving under the influence (18%) and distraction (17%).
Autonomous Vehicle Types
- Buses: The introduction of driverless buses would offer numerous benefits such as enabling operators to manage and optimize passenger capacity, improve service offerings on routes with few passengers, and reduce the number of time constraints encountered on various routes.
- Trains: Researchers have successfully tested a convoy of Safe Road Trains for the Environment (SARTRE). This is in addition to successful tests on three wirelessly connected cars following a car under the control of a professional driver.
- Taxis: Tests on autonomous taxi pods have already taken place in Milton Keynes, UK, in preparation of a planned 2017 rollout. However, these taxi pods will only be allowed on specific roads at speeds not exceeding 12 mph.
- Military vehicles: The military is experimenting on using different types of unmanned vehicles to reduce the loss of human lives in battle.
- Service vehicles: Tests on the use of self-driving heavy-duty trucks have already taken place at amine in Pilbara, Australia. The test results showed improvements in efficiency, predictability, productivity, and safety. As such, similar AV truck technology was rolled out at other mining locations in Australia.
The Basics of Autonomous Vehicles Technology
AV technology hinges on four key components: mapping, light detection and ranging (lidar), sense-plan- act, as well as V2V and V2I communication. To start with, self-driving cars now depend on maps that contain features such as streets, curbs, road marks, roadblocks, streetlights, and road signs to help them navigate from one point to another. In addition, AVs use LIDAR systems to navigate. Unfortunately, LIDAR systems do not work well on surfaces with low reflectivity and are largely ineffective for long ranges. V2V (vehicle-to-vehicle) and V2I (vehicle-to-individual) communication allow AVs to transmit obstacle information to each other or operate as wirelessly linked vehicle platoons. Lastly, self-driving vehicles loop through sense-plan- act steps to ensure they do not stray from roads.
Law Governing Autonomous Vehicles
According to a recent legal review, current laws do not categorically ban AV technology. For instance, the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) do not prohibit self-driving vehicles. However, some auto codes and laws may hamper the development and commercialization of self-driving cars. For example, complying with laws that govern the distance that drivers must maintain between cars may make it difficult to operate vehicle platoons that rely on AV technology. While no state has expressly banned the testing and use of self-driving cars yet, some states, including California, Nevada, Florida, and Michigan, have enacted laws governing AV technology. Other states considering enacting AV tech legislation include New York, Massachusetts, and New Jersey. States that have tried and failed or postponed enactment of AV regulations include Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Hawaii, Louisiana, Maryland, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Washington, and Wisconsin.
Current and Future AV Tech Hurdles
Firstly, players in the AV sector must develop sensors that are easy to fix after failure. Detecting and avoiding obstacles are challenges that also require resolving via improvements in mapping technology among other technological facets. A third major problem is addressing legal challenges related to self-driving autos. A good example is the definition of terms such as “driver” and “operator,” which are currently grey zones in relation to AVs.
Sociocultural and Ethical Challenges
Another challenge that all interested parties must ponder is the sociocultural and unpredictable impact of introducing AVs. For example, the pros and cons of programming driverless cars to avoid breaking traffic rules or jeopardizing human life. At the same time, ethical dilemmas such as the pros and cons of programming AVs to break or obey laws, coding AVs to handle no-win situations, hacking, consumer privacy, and data losses must be reviewed thoroughly.
Proponents of autonomous vehicles (AVs) claim that this technology can improve traffic flow and safety, ease road travel hassles, and reduce car ownership. However, to achieve this goal, the AVs industry must first overcome certain legal, ethical and engineering challenges.
At the Russ College of Engineering and Technology, graduates of the Online Master of Science in Electrical Engineering program are equipped with the skills to research, design, develop, and test new technologies and industry applications — and to position themselves as leaders.