The Road to Driverless Vehicles: Long and Winding

Carl Weinschenk

I posted a short note a few weeks ago about a trip taken by a driverless car from San Francisco to New York City. The trek, which was sponsored by Delphi Automotive and Audi, took nine days.

That piece of news suggests that the era of driverless cars has arrived. After all, if the car can make it across the country without mishap, is a society of driverless cars nothing more than a matter of scaling up and mass producing the technology?

It turns out that it is much more than that. Mashable’s Seth Fiegerman writes about the gray area between what is technically possible and what is not with driverless cars. He also discusses regulations and laws, which may be as much of a gating factor as the vehicles’ ability to safely get from point A to point B – even if those two points are a continent apart.


The National Highway Safety Administration has five classifications of automated vehicles; recently updated software from futuristic automaker Tesla only gets to the second level. The highest level is “full self-driving automation.”

Even the term “driverless” is contentious: If automakers position their vehicles in this way, it would make it harder to assign liability to a car’s superfluous “driver” in an accident. That is a conversation that needs to occur before the laws change. There also are matters of divergent state laws on other issues and the attitude of insurance companies. Indeed, the technology may be the easy part.

The head of Delphi said that the demonstration doesn’t mean that the era of driverless cars is upon us. He was quoted at CNBC:

"To get the driver out of the driver seat, you're 10 years or 15 years away, at least," he said, citing the legal and regulatory hurdles. "You need an ecosystem for a fully autonomous car to work in."

Driverless Car

The extent to which the goal of improving safety with driverless cars can be reached is a bit more nuanced than might be expected, too. A study by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute found that ”autonomous autos” could be safer than those with drivers. But the study suggested that the safest drivers are middle-aged; they are more prudent than kids and have better reaction time than older folks. The study said that it’s uncertain whether the technology could surpass or even come close to middle-aged drivers, and trying to get there could be dangerous:

Eventually, if all cars on the road are as safe as those otherwise operated by middle-age drivers, that sounds like a significant safety improvement. But during the transition period -- when some cars have drivers and some don’t -- the danger on roadways could even potentially increase, the report finds.

Driverless cars are an alluring prospect. At this point, however, the hype is a couple of car lengths ahead of the reality.

Carl Weinschenk covers telecom for IT Business Edge. He writes about wireless technology, disaster recovery/business continuity, cellular services, the Internet of Things, machine-to-machine communications and other emerging technologies and platforms. He also covers net neutrality and related regulatory issues. Weinschenk has written about the phone companies, cable operators and related companies for decades and is senior editor of Broadband Technology Report. He can be reached at cweinsch@optonline.net and via twitter at @DailyMusicBrk.



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