California is preparing for driverless cars to go solo, or operate without a driver. According to a report in Technology Review, California’s Department of Motor Vehicles has announced that it plans to allow companies to test driverless cars on its roads without on-board backup drivers before the end of the year. The vehicles would still be required to have a remote operator who is capable of keeping an eye on the vehicle. However, this is a defining moment for driverless technology when the vehicles are allowed to operate without a driver to babysit it, essentially.
The question that arises here, however, is: Is the technology ready for primetime? In other words, are we ready to fully place our faith in the ability of a robot and allow these vehicles to run around town without a human to control them? A number of automakers and tech companies are in a race to develop these cars as soon as they can. However, it is important for these companies to keep things in perspective and to not forget that the cars may not be able to cope with many complex roadway conditions. There may still be glitches that need ironing out before these driverless cars can be completely trusted.
Uber’s Experience with Driverless Cars
Perhaps, we should take a page from Uber’s experience with driverless cars. Recode got a series of internal Uber documents, which show that the driver is still very much required in the ride-hailing company’s autonomous vehicles. For example, on a recent week, Uber’s 43 cars clocked a total of 20,354 autonomous miles, but safety drivers had reason to intervene once every 0.8 miles on average. That is a figure that’s actually decreased since January, which means drivers have had to intervene more often.
A more critical figure is the number of miles between what Uber calls “critical” interventions on the driver’s part – situations where if a driver had not intervened, someone might have been injured or at least $5,000 of property damage could’ve occurred. As of last week, that figure was 196 miles between incidents, which is up from 50 miles in January. While it’s getting better, it is still problematic when you think about the fact that once every 200 miles there is still the potential for a person to get injured or property damage to occur as a result of these driverless vehicles.
Careful Consideration Required
It is important for California officials to take Uber’s experiences into consideration before they allow driverless vehicles to travel on our roadways without a driver to take over in the case of an emergency. Driverless vehicles are not a question of if but when. However, we should never compromise lives and public safety in a rush to implement groundbreaking technology – at least not without proper testing and vetting.
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