Clock is running on the driverless car

Autonomous vehicles, in addition to the technical hurdles and current limitations that stand in their way, also suffer from an image problem among the general public.

“One of the things we’re hearing from consumers is an increasing level of scepticism regarding full self-driving vehicles,” said Kristin Kolodge, executive director of driver interaction and HMI at J.D. Power. “This has been an emotion that has grown year over year.”

That scepticism could be because of a lack of first-hand experience. Thus far, automakers have only been willing to demonstrate autonomous car technology in a closed off, closely regulated environment that leaves little room for error. Consequently, very few have been able to ride in a self-driving vehicle. Grayson Brulte, co-founder and president of Brulte & Company, thinks it’s time to change that.

“As the technology matures, we have to educate the public about the technology that resides in the vehicles,” said Brulte, whose company develops and implements innovation technology strategies for a global marketplace. “One of the biggest things that’s holding them back is fear of the unknown. You see reports that say consumers aren’t comfortable with autonomy. I believe the only way to solve that is with autonomous vehicle demo days.”

April Sanborn, driver programmes manager for the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles, has seen a lot of trepidation from consumers. She attributes any fears to a lack of awareness. She said that while those within the auto industry are very familiar with the technology, the general public – even technicians working at Nevada DMV field offices – are mostly unaware about the true capability of autonomous technology. “I think we’re seriously lacking in educating the public on the reality of what automated driving is now, what it’s going to be in the very near future and then what the far-reaching future is going to look like,” said Sanborn.

Radovan Miucic, technical specialist at Changan US R&D Center, compared the reaction to autonomous technology to the way consumers reacted when elevator operators were first removed. Said Miucic: “People were very afraid of elevators when they first started. It took a while for people to get adjusted – you press a button and it takes you up. In the beginning there was an operator. Now we don’t see them anymore.”

Looking to soften consumers’ views of autonomy, Brulte has spent the last two years trying to secure a demo day on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, California. Automakers have continually told him that they loved the idea but when it came time to put things in motion, they backed out.

Breaking down the legislative barriers

Consumer acceptance is certainly a hurdle to deployment but automakers are also waiting for legislators to propose, finalise and pass laws that will allow autonomous vehicles to operate legally. Thus far, more than a dozen states have passed legislation related to autonomous vehicles. Several others are considering their own sets of laws, which could pose new challenges for the future of mobility. If each state has different rules pertaining to how and when self-driving cars can operate – and who can or cannot sit behind a wheel without touching it – mobility could come to a screeching halt.

“We don’t want that to happen,” said Dr Amitai Bin-Nun, vice-president of autonomous vehicles and mobility innovation at Securing America’s Future Energy (SAFE), an advocacy organisation and think tank in Washington, D.C. “Safety has always been regulated at the national level. One of the worst things a state can do is put in its own framework for determining the road readiness of a vehicle and create its own system for figuring out if vehicles are allowed on the road.”

Amanda Essex, a transportation policy specialist for the National Conference of State Legislatures, thinks this issue can be resolved if the states work together with the federal government. Said Essex: “We have NHTSA’s federal policy, the guidance released in September of last year, that was intended to provide some clarity. However, it’s not a rulemaking. It doesn’t directly address some of these questions. I think it’s going to be a matter of states working with the federal government because so much of this is within state authority to regulate.”

Bin-Nun said that congress could play an important role in preventing a “patchwork of state legislation” from going into effect. He added: “We have 50 states in this country and they have a lot of different needs and perspectives. Some states, like California, have always seen themselves as leaders in safety and technology. They’re knee-deep in thinking about the road-worthiness aspect of autonomous vehicles. Other states are not that interested in the regulatory side. It highlights the need for federal guidance because this is not one of those cases where 50 states taking different approaches helps us.”

Vehicle to pedestrian communication

What happens when those outside of the vehicle – pedestrians, construction workers, police officers, etc. – need to communicate with an autonomous car? One possible solution involves replacing a traditional windshield with a large display that projects messages, which could be as simple as “walk” or “don’t walk,” mirroring those of a traffic signal.

Alistair Adams, automotive business programme manager for The Qt Company, acknowledged the necessity to create a communication method between autonomous cars and pedestrians. “With autonomous, its occupants are just passengers with no real driver, so you need that [communication],” said Adams. “These are challenges of the autonomous car.”

Automakers currently use The Qt Company’s software framework to develop in-car infotainment experiences. Adams speculated that consumers might favour their own devices when using an automated mobility service. Said Adams: “If you hail a ride, do you need a user interface in there? Is it a bit like a train or airplane where you bring your own device?”

That might be a convenient option for most consumers. However, it could introduce new security challenges for those who don’t wish to share their personal data with every Uber in town. “If you’re taking an Uber and you’re just a passenger in the car, you’ve got to think about security,” said Adams. “If you’re actually running applications on that device, what personal information are you leaving behind? Maybe it becomes a dumb projection screen that’s just bigger and gives you more real estate.”


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