Beginning Monday, April 2 the California DMV had the authority to issue permits for companies pursuing Autonomous Vehicles (AVs) to test on public roads without drivers.
These self driving cars are driven by machines – a series of data gathering systems controlled by software to pilot a motor vehicle on the streets without a person behind the steering wheel. Of the 50 or so companies currently testing AVs in California only one applied for permission. The DMV said they will not divulge the name of the company until a decision is reached on whether or not to grant the permit to test or deploy a driverless car or AV, and there is no schedule or timetable for such a decision to be made.
To qualify, companies must demonstrate the ability for their vehicles to abide by safe driving rules, with their systems and software sufficiently protected from hacking via cybersecurity, and be capable of summoning help in the event the vehicle is pulled over by law enforcement.
The other event that feels oddly appropriate to mention in conjunction with the AV permitting opportunity is the 50th Anniversary of the release of the seminal feature film 2001: A Space Odyssey, by Stanley Kubrick, written by Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke, which introduced HAL to the world. Perhaps one reason that some people feel uneasy about the prospect of AVs or driverless cars taking to the streets and highways is the notion of intelligent robots turning into psychopaths and becoming more of a menace than human drivers are presently.
There is legitimate concern about the effectiveness of current autonomous cars given the recent pedestrian death in Arizona when an Uber AV with a safety driver behind the wheel hit and killed a pedestrian, and the second death of a Tesla passenger behind the wheel of a Model X with the Autopilot system engaged. However,the prevailing conclusion by places like Rand and others is that the net effect of AVs will be fewer traffic deaths and safer streets.
The National Safety Council puts 2017 highway deaths at 40,100. Waymo, the AV company spun off from Google says that 94 percent of crashes involve human error. Rand said that in 2011 one third of highway deaths were alcohol related.
The arrival of AVs as a significant portion of traffic is coming soon, starting as early as 2019 according to Jeremy Carlson, principal automotive analyst, in areas of autonomous driving and mobility, with the firm IHS Markit. They project the first year with significant numbers of AVs on the road will be 2021, with 51,000 such vehicles, and Carlson says by 2040 they predict 1 in 4 cars on the road will be AVs.
While the fear of intelligent machines run amok will most likely remain a staple of science fiction, the reality is that the benefits of AVs will be real. And as Carlson said to me, an AV “won’t be checking its cell phone.”
Photo: m01229 Flickr/CC