Driverless cars are ready to hit the road—but are we ready for driverless cars?

January 3, 2018 by Ian Chaffee, University of Southern California
A fully self-driving Chrysler Pacifica hybrid minivan hits the road. Credit: Waymo

We may continue to wait for those flying cars promised in science fiction, but who needs them when the car can drive itself?

Congress is trying to fast-track legislation that speeds the removal of federal regulatory hurdles for . The California Department of Motor Vehicles recently revised its own regulations to allow for the testing of almost entirely on California's streets starting in June.

"Legislation is aptly being developed while the technology is still in its infancy," said Jeffrey Miller, an associate professor of engineering education at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering who focuses on autonomous vehicles. "Although there are some regulations, the auto manufacturers are really going to determine the future of the technology rather than the lawmakers, which is an interesting twist from previous technological advancements like this."

The auto industry may be ready, but are we?

Computing life-and-death decisions

The immediate benefit couldn't be greater. About 36,000 Americans die in automobile accidents every year, the second leading cause of external injury, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"Some people argue that, given the number of deaths in automobile accidents every year, it behooves us to implement collision avoidance algorithms immediately. But there are some unintended ethical and legal consequences that need to be considered," said Ali Abbas, director of USC's Neely Center for Ethical Leadership and Decision Making.

"When a machine is programmed to operate in a certain way, it is premeditated. The programmer knows exactly how the machine will act in a given situation and the types of trade-offs it will make. Who will be deciding these trade-offs?"

Abbas, who specializes in risk analysis and the ethics of artificial intelligence, says this could cause a slippery slope of bad outcomes caused by good intentions, bad intentions and misrepresentation on the parts of the human passengers that take advantage of this technology.

"These types of algorithms will also rely on the amount of information your car knows about you when you or your party are in it. So how much information should be fed into the algorithm? And how much information should your car know about you? The actions it makes will depend on this knowledge. And what if a person misrepresents this information to the vehicle to create more protection for their party? Will they be held accountable in the event of an accident?"

Hacking a 2-ton, 65 mph computer

Assuming that a self-driving car will do what it is programmed to do might still be assuming too much.

The industry, legislators and drivers-turned-passengers must also consider the cybersecurity precautions to be taken when so much of an autonomous vehicle's automation relies on computer systems.

Security researchers have repeatedly demonstrated over the last several years that a car's electronic instrumentation can be wirelessly hijacked.

Making them even more attractive to cyberattacker is the level of complexity of the software that will be installed in these vehicles, and the severity of the damage that can be done to the victim, according to Clifford Neuman, director of the Center for Computer Systems Security at USC Viterbi.

"We've seen the steering and braking of individual vehicles taken over on the news," Neuman said.

"The software update process that will be inevitably provided for vehicles will make them vulnerable. What is needed is for the developers of these systems is to provide much more attention to their software architecture to ensure that basic safety constraints are embedded deep in the system and cannot be subverted."

What impacts on cities and infrastructure?

When driverless cars do get here, the potential ripple effects could be endless. Completely autonomous vehicles would create an impact not just on obvious pieces of local infrastructure like roads and traffic lights, but many different parts of what would be newly developed "smart cities," says Bhaskar Krishnamachari, director of the Center for Cyber-Physical Systems and the Internet of Things at USC Viterbi.

"Much of the traffic infrastructure we have in cities today, such as traffic lights, static visual signs indicating driving rules and speed limits, etc., were designed for human drivers," he said.

"City, state and federal transportation departments will need to invest soon in deploying new infrastructure based on wireless communications for more efficient interaction with autonomous cars. With adoption of autonomous vehicles, we are also likely to see reduced ownership of vehicles, and a greater move toward renting and sharing.

"Increased use of carpooling could be a boon by reducing traffic congestion and energy usage for vehicles further."

Explore further: California gives green light to self-driving car tests

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3 / 5 (4) Jan 03, 2018
Why are self driving cars being pushed so hard? I don't know one person that has any interest in these things, and yet for several years I've read a lot of articles about how these things are COMING!... Who is pushing it?
5 / 5 (3) Jan 03, 2018
I bet the insurance companies are at least one source pushing it. They would charge close to the same premiums but the crash rates would drop substantially.
3 / 5 (4) Jan 03, 2018
" I don't know one person that has any interest in these things"

I am pushing it. My daughter suffers from seizures and is otherwise normal, but cannot drive.

There are millions of people who could lead normal lives with transportation.
Mark Thomas
5 / 5 (1) Jan 03, 2018
szore88, speculating wildly here, with developing countries buying and driving cars in record numbers, the number of corresponding deaths and injuries per year is skyrocketing well into the millions. There is a significant economic and political cost to all this human misery. Many of these developing countries would like a quick fix and self-driving cars seem to be it. Self-driving cars could also potentially ease traffic congestion by coordinating and they would give passengers more time to do other things while riding.

Like you, we are fortunate to live in a more developed countries and don't see the immediate benefit as much. From my personal perspective, it bothers me that self driving cars are another step on the slippery slope of preventing humans from doing anything, lest we hurt ourselves. The only limits appear to be technological and that scares everyone except people like Otto, who is ready to be transformed into a cyborg any day now. :-)
5 / 5 (1) Jan 03, 2018

"Why are self driving cars being pushed so hard? I don't know one person that has any interest in these things..."

@Szore88: I will be an early customer for self-driving cars. Not just for myself, but for the entire family.

These will free me from the careless mistakes I can make on long monotonous drives.

My kids will be sixteen in a few years and I would rather have the car drive them than vice-versa. My insurance company will probably give me a price cut for this.

My mother is over 80 and does not drive after dark. Even in the daylight she limits herself to 10-20 miles. A self driving car would save her from losing her license in a few years.

My wife is still skeptical, but after a few months she'll wonder how we made it without self-driving cars.
not rated yet Jan 03, 2018
For me, the day all of you buy self driving cars, will be the best day of my life.
Mark Thomas
not rated yet Jan 04, 2018
At the risk of repeating myself, does it bother anyone else that self driving cars are another step on the slippery slope of preventing humans from doing anything, lest we hurt ourselves?
1 / 5 (3) Jan 04, 2018

Please find something real to fear.
Mark Thomas
not rated yet Jan 04, 2018
Driverless cars are obviously becoming very real, not imaginary. Once cars start driving themselves better than humans do, which should be from Day 1, it will be the beginning of the end of people driving vehicles. This will happen for insurance purposes if for no other reason. Again, this will be one less activity people do themselves because they might hurt themselves. Once automobile driving is automated, you might as well do the same with trucks, trains, tanks, ships, airplanes and all other vehicles too. This sure looks like a slippery slope to me, not something imaginary.
Captain Stumpy
3.7 / 5 (3) Jan 04, 2018
@Mark T
At the risk of repeating myself, does it bother anyone else that self driving cars are another step on the slippery slope of preventing humans from doing anything, lest we hurt ourselves?
yes and no

This is similar to the modern problem of research and or knowledge: does it bother anyone else that information is more freely available to everyone?

the situation is analogous in that we have exchanged one skill set for another that is more effective for the times. You don't see a lot of mountain men living solitary lifestyles seeking fortunes in beaver pelt because times change and the world has expanded to preclude the wild lifestyle and yet those same historical US men were common for the era with talents similar to many others, be it tracking, land navigation or shooting. the modern era eschews those anachronisms relegating them to nostalgia yet those same talents would go far to a person suddenly isolated in the wild which still exist

Mark Thomas
5 / 5 (1) Jan 04, 2018
Capt. S, you make a good point, however, that great feeling when you drive for the first time with a driver's license you earned, or buy and drive a new car, will be gone. And it is not only enjoyment that is being lost, but careers for millions of people. What we have in its place is safety. The safety to be bored and unemployed pending retraining.

Reminds me a line from a song from the band OneRepublic called Everything has Changed . . . "everything that kills me makes me feel alive." I don't want to hit that point too hard, but do we really want risk-free lives?
Captain Stumpy
5 / 5 (1) Jan 04, 2018
@Mark T
however, that great feeling ...will be gone
I agree with you about those last 2 lines in your post especially

As a species, we are likely to evolve along multiple lines in the near future (geological or universal time). When the species begins to colonize space we will either:
1- integrate with or depend upon AI (singularity)
2- evolve quickly into different species filling a niche like low/no G spacers VS Gravity well old-school

this assumes we survive our current problems of pollution etc, mind you

there is still plenty that will gladly kill us, and it may well be more of a first flying lesson or similar in the future

risk is what keeps the species in existence
take that away and you get cattle for any sociopath willing to not be domesticated (or another species)

it is one reason we evolved to the top predator on the planet
well... that and to make sure bacteria have a place to live

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