Basic Knowledge Basics of autonomous driving - Part 5
In the fifth and penultimate part of the series "Basics of Autonomous Driving," we ask questions about the social acceptance of self-propelled vehicles and who is controlling the controllers.
A technological leap can change everything and, therefore, also road traffic fundamentally. Radical change takes place on several levels, for example, concerning powertrain systems (switching from combustion engines to electric drives) or the increasing spread of "X-by-Wire" technology (replacing massive, less reliable mechanical systems). A key question here is who - or what - will be responsible for controlling a vehicle in the future.
Regardless of the propulsion system used, electronic hardware is becoming increasingly crucial for vehicle guidance and operation. At the same time, the degree of autonomy of vehicle systems is increasing, so that the driver will gradually become a passenger in the future. While the previous two articles in this six-part series focused on the technological framework - sensors and communication infrastructure, respectively - the next two sections deal with the question of how the social acceptance of autonomous vehicles has to increase and where potential obstacles might occur.
Smarter vehicle technologies
One aspect of intelligent vehicles that should ensure more excellent road safety is their high degree of connectivity. Cloud-based systems not only connect individual cars, busses, and trucks with each other but can also link to traffic management systems. This interconnectivity means that vehicles are always informed about traffic light changes, obstacles, and other road users. They do not have to rely solely on their sensor detection but can have a detailed overview of the traffic situation at all times.
In any case, it is essential to remember that there are other factors to consider besides the position, speed, and direction of vehicles - traffic etiquette will also have a significant influence on the decisions of self-driving cars. Driving in the city often requires quicker action than on country roads, for example. Driving maneuvers that might seem too risky for an autonomous vehicle - such as entering a busy lane are continually occurring. In cultures in which vehicles tend to brake to allow other road users to enter the lane, the software will more likely classify the risk potential as acceptable and initiate the lane change. However, in parts of the world with a less regulated driving culture, AI-based software may need to be more risk-aware and change lanes on the assumption that the driver coming from behind is expecting to engage the vehicle and brake fast enough.
In the early years of autonomous driving, when machine-based and human drivers coexist, collisions seem unavoidable for various reasons. Only in the distant future will vehicles be able to coordinate wirelessly with each other and use an algorithm to decide who will thread the zipper and how.
Fury over autonomous vehicles
A further question is to what extent self-propelled cars will influence traffic etiquette. According to recent studies, the presence of autonomous vehicles currently undergoing test drives on public roads may have an impact on the behavior of other road users. Correctly, it has been observed that drivers tend to be more aggressive and reckless. This may be due to the confrontation with the novelty, as only a handful of test vehicles are currently in use.
Could it be that the self-propelled robots are penetrating more profound layers of our psyche? There have been cases in which people with handguns have been shooting at self-propelled cars while they were taking a test drive. The motive for these attacks remains unclear. One reason could be anger about the fact that people are in danger of being replaced by technology and losing their jobs (taxi drivers, truck drivers, etc.). Or perhaps it is just an instinctive aversion to the unknown.
It may be naive to believe that autonomous driving will equally be accepted in all parts of society. Some sections of the population will be more willing to take the technology than others; age, in particular, will play a significant role. Those who have been driving for decades are unlikely to be as easily persuaded to try a mode of transport that seems unfamiliar to them (and involves a loss of control) as someone who has just passed their driving test. Initiatives are currently underway in several European countries to address this problem. They aim to ensure that the concerns of the older generations are not ignored, and try to encourage their participation in technology.
Who controls the controllers?
The algorithms based on which artificial intelligence makes humans program decisions, and this leads to various dilemmas. There is already heated debate about which decision-making criteria autonomous vehicles should use in situations where human lives are at stake.
Such questions have become more relevant since humans have begun to cede aspects of public order to machines. Ultimately, this will lead to a situation where legal concerns, municipal traffic management, pedestrian protection, and countless other issues of vehicle interaction with society will be operated by "electronic brains" (which are, however, bound by a framework of action given to them by human engineers).
Of course, the responsibility associated with this is not solely on the vehicle side. Autonomous mobility is only one part of the far-reaching smart city ecosystems. The cloud infrastructure of urban environments will be as critical to traffic safety as the state of the road network or weather conditions. Sophisticated V2X (Vehicle-to-Everything) network systems that are scalable, extremely reliable, and responsive will have to be established. Engineers have the task of providing the necessary components and subsystems. At the same time, a host of fundamental questions need to be answered regarding who is responsible in the event of accidents. These are dealt with in the last part of this series.
This article was first published in German by next-mobility.news.