The question in the headline of this post is one that researchers all over the country, including here in North Carolina, are trying to answer. The response you get depends a lot on the person you happen to be asking.
Hardcore advocates of self-driving or autonomous vehicles say they are just around the corner. In fact, there are some out there now. Google and other companies have been testing such vehicles for several years. They aren’t commercially available yet, but developers insist that’s just a matter of years.
Others who have been researching the possibilities of autonomous vehicles for longer than Google has been in existence say such talk is way off base. Included among them is Steve Shladover of the University of California, Berkeley. He’s been studying such things for 40 years and he predicts that the day of a so-called Level 5 vehicle, one that doesn’t need any human input, is decades away.
Besides the hurdles related to social acceptance, Shladover says there are huge technical issues to overcome. Not the least of them is ironing out all the possible software bugs. He says trying to account for all the possible variables that could come up on the road — weather, lighting, traffic, pedestrians — means fully automated cars are a long way off. He says fully automated commercial aviation is likely to come first.
Correlated with the question of when computer-controlled vehicles might arrive is the question of who will be liable for injuries and damages in accidents? Experts generally agree that autonomous cars and trucks will be safer. But accidents will happen and, as Shladover says, “The old ‘blue screen of death’ won’t just be a figure of speech anymore.” It could mean someone dies.
Where liability is concerned, it all gets down to human error. And as another California engineer observes, autonomous cars won’t eliminate human error. It just shifts it from the driver to a computer programmer.
Apparently the answer to the question in this case is, don’t hold your breath.
Source: WNCN-TV, “UNC explores future of transportation,” Mike Lamia, July 8, 2015