The road to a commercially viable autonomous vehicle is not without its challenges. And while I would strongly argue that the technology is inevitable, these challenges will dictate how soon this technology is available to the masses.
The first challenge is technological. As routine as driving may sometimes feel, it is, in fact, a remarkably complicated task. It is a human’s combination of acute senses and incredible intellect that makes driving seem so easy. We respond quickly and (for the most part) rationally to dynamic and unpredictable road environments every day. Replicating a human’s powers of observation and response has proven a daunting task. If we could replace all human drivers with autonomous vehicles, the technology would probably be ready by now. People increase the challenge of autonomous driving substantially because they can be erratic. Ironically, the driverless car of the future (in a future where humans are no longer allowed to drive) may be a less sophisticated device than the driverless vehicles being developed today. Either way, building a car that can respond to circumstances that can’t be foreseen and haven’t been experienced may delay broad commercialization of the technology.
Integrating all of the technology necessary to facilitate vehicle autonomy creates a barrier of its own. An already expensive vehicle now requires lidar, radar, cameras and infrared technology just to observe its environment. It requires a supercomputer in order to process the enormous amounts of information coming from these sensors. All of this technology can cost a fortune, which could make driverless cars a luxury of the wealthy, at least in the beginning. There is hope that innovation and mass production will collectively drive down the costs of this technology substantially in the future. But that may take some time.
There are also social challenges to driverless cars. Owning a car has been central to our national identity for much of the past century. Think Grease, Fast & Furious, Cars or any number of car-centric movies. Getting a car has been a right of passage for countless teenagers gaining their first real taste of freedom. It is no mistake that Tesla named its three vehicles the S – 3 – X (SEX). Convincing us (Americans in particular) to give up our control of a car may be challenging.
Beyond our romance with cars, there is also the challenge of perceived safety. It may prove difficult to convince people that driverless cars are, in fact, safe to use, no matter what the statistics say. Think about flying. Flying is one of the safest possible modes of transportation. Flying crashes are incredibly rare. Despite this, flying continues to provoke fear out of proportion with its risk. The factors associated with aviophobia are complex, but part of that story is lack of control. We don’t feel in control in an airplane because we aren’t operating it. That same problem will arise with autonomous vehicles (specifically where human operation is not an option).
The final significant challenges is legal. A vehicle that can pick-up a person at one location and drop them off at another without any human intervention is not legal today. Federal and state laws were not designed with a computer operator in mind. Generally speaking, the existing legal framework requires licensed operators and vehicles features that permit human operations. While there has been progress in this arena (especially at the federal level), the technology may be ready before our laws allow us to use them.
Another legal challenge worth noting is liability. When a computer is operating a vehicle, who is at fault if the computer causes an accident? Is it the company that manufactured the computer? Is it the company that owns the vehicle? Is it the person using the vehicle? The assignment of this liability could have repercussions that ripple throughout the industry.
None of these challenges are insurmountable. Some have already begun to show signs of giving way. Nonetheless, these are the challenges that the blossoming AV industry must tackle before the technology will have a significant impact on the way we live.