What’s the status of self-driving cars? There has been progress, but safety questions remain
(CBS) — There has been incremental, but steady, progress in the development of self-driving cars. Some form of driver-assistance technology focused on safety is now inside most new vehicles.
The Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) defines six levels of vehicle driving automation systems. Right now, we’re at level two, with cars able to control steering, acceleration and braking, while still requiring drivers to remain engaged. Down the road, level 5 autonomy would mean fully driverless cars.
But the transition into the future hasn’t always been smooth. As the technology advances, drivers adjust, and the government tries to keep up.
Among the new crowd of autonomous vehicles is the 2022 Honda Civic. One of the newest settings on the standard-issue Honda Civic is it can drive itself down the road itself, then smoothly break behind a stopped car.
Honda told CBS News the system is not intended or capable of detecting the end of a road, and is not marketed or considered a hands-free technology. adding that it’s the driver’s responsibility to maintain control at all times, CBS News’ Brook Silva-Braga reports.
But researcher Kelly Funkhauser, who tests self-driving technology for Consumer Reports, worries such systems work so well most of the time that many drivers won’t be ready when the inevitable exception pops up.
“There’s a tendency to find a stimulus because you’re bored,” she said. “Monitoring a system that’s performing well is extremely boring but the problem is the features aren’t quite up to speed yet in their capabilities.”
For all automakers, the promise of self-driving is both convenience and safety. But neither has fully arrived quite yet.
“Is the person driving or is the person not driving? Because if they’re driving then this stuff seems pointless and if they’re not driving you can’t ask them to drive at a moment’s notice,” Silva-Braga said.
“Exactly, and that’s what they’re saying is, they’re giving you the little legalese warning, ‘Take over, ’cause we don’t want responsibility. You must pay attention, even though we know it’s boring and we know that you’re a human being and you’re not going to, but we don’t want responsibility because we know that our system’s not perfect.’ That’s where we are,” said Funkhauser.
In the 1950s, GM imagined self-driving cars by the 1970s. In 2018, they promised them within a year.
Elon Musk previously said a Tesla would self-drive across the country by 2017. It still hasn’t, and instead, the company faces federal investigations and lawsuits over some alleged instances of failure of its autopilot system.
Waymo launched self-driving car taxis but the high-end sensors are far too costly for mass production vehicles. TuSimple launched a self-driving option for its semi-tractor-trailers, but they still come equipped with human safety drivers.
“A lot of people are finding out that developing for all the chaos of the roadway is a lot harder than anyone ever thought,” Funkhauser said.
Last year, Elon Musk conceded he did not expect self-driving to be so hard. Then, he launched an audacious plan to solve it, putting a full self-drive system on real roads and using carefully screened Tesla owners to chaperon the cars as they worked on their driving. The idea is all these test miles will teach Tesla’s system in ways only the real world can.
Tesla did not respond to CBS News’ request for comment, but has described the beta tests as a safe way to make their software better. Some critics, however, argue it’s a potential menace to anyone on the roads.
Consumer Reports wants automakers to only enable these features for drivers who agree to compromise their privacy and be actively tracked, as Tesla and GMC drivers, to an extent, already are. Otherwise, Funkhauser said she does not trust drivers to actively watch these imperfect systems, which could need watching much longer than we’d hoped.
“I don’t think you can order a car, pick you up from your house, take you to work until probably 2050,” she said.
Funkhauser says the biggest thing that would help self-driving cars is if they could communicate with each other and objects around them, but that also may not happen any time soon. In the last days of the Trump administration, the FCC took away most of the radio spectrum that cars were planning to use. Unless that changes, experts, including Funkhauser, say it will be much more difficult for cars to communicate.
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