Monday, June 3, 2013

Op-Ed: The Future of Self-Driving Cars

On Thursday, the Department of Transportation issued a statement to state governments saying that driverless technology is not yet at the level where a driver should not actually be in the driver’s seat.  The statement outlines five levels of automation that describe the level of driver/car interaction.  The scale goes from level zero, which describes a car which has no automatic driving functions, to level five, in which a driver simply inputs navigational coordinates and has no driver input (Ribeiro).  The statement recommended that states ban the general use of driverless cars until a NHTSA study can be completed.

Deputy Administrator of the NHTSA, David Friedman, stated that they “want to stay ahead on this issue” (Healey).  Actually staying ahead on this issue would require not delaying the progress already made in the technology by forcing states to keep the cars illegal until the completion of the study.  At the very least, the NHTSA recognizes that the technology has “enormous safety potential” when used in completely autonomous vehicles (Healey).

The NHTSA suggestions will only delay implementation of a consumer ready level three driverless car, which companies like Google have tested extensively.  In fact, the Google driverless fleet, which consists of about a dozen vehicles, have collectively driven over a half million miles.  The fleet is made of more than six Toyota Prii, Lexus Hybrid RXs, and an Audi TT (Wired).  Over the course of this half million miles, the Google vehicles have only been involved in two traffic incidents, one where a human was in control of the vehicle at the time of the collision, and another where the vehicle was rear-ended at a stoplight (Urmson).

According to Allstate Insurance, the average driver gets into a traffic collision once every 10 years or about every 165,000 miles.  Google’s fleet is quickly approaching the level at which technology will be safer than a human driver.  Driverless cars could also have the benefits of alleviating parking scarcity, improving mileage, reducing the need for ugly road signage, and reducing the need for monotonous driver tasks.

It’s estimated that self-driving cars will eliminate some percentage of traffic collisions as well as relieve traffic congestion when they reach a certain level of market saturation.  We shouldn't let the freshness of this technology keep the driverless car from becoming a reality.  Only two years ago, the driverless car was illegal in all 50 states and there was no talk of the need for driverless vehicles (Cowen).  Since Nevada passed laws making the testing of driverless cars legal in 2011, three other states have done so as well (Cowen).  This just demonstrates that obviously a lot can change in a short amount of time since the field of autonomous cars is developing so quickly.

State departments of transportation and governors need to realize that putting too much weight behind the reluctance of the Department of Transportation preliminary policy will add years to the development time of the driverless car.  Creating an environment where every kink must be worked out prior to rollout of a consumer driverless car will only result in the loss of lives that could have been saved.  Obviously safety is a concern, but there is no reason to believe from testing from Google and other companies like Audi, Nissan, and Toyota, that driverless cars will not be safer than regular vehicles.

By the time the NHTSA study is concluded four years from now, the market of autonomous cars, of which Google is considered the leader, may have changed, with Google falling behind to foreign firms.  It is also possible, depending on the requirements imposed after the end of the four-year study, that the driverless car could become an impossibility.  The need for these systems exists now and would be a vast improvement over the human-controlled version.

In fact, this year Mercedes and BMW will debut 2014 models that have some degree of driverless ability.  The 2014 Mercedes S-Class features the Distronic Plus Steering Assistance System, which gives the vehicle lane-guidance capability, locks on dotted white-lane markings or the car in front on highways at speeds up to 124 mph or on turns of less than 15 degrees (English). The Distronic system and other systems in the S-Class would allow the vehicle to maintain its distance from the car in front, brake to a complete halt, restart from stationary or stop for cross traffic, but the driver has to grip the steering wheel with a certain amount of force.  If the driver does not, the system will switch itself off after 25 seconds (English).

Unfortunately, liability issues and other minor technical issues kept Mercedes from coming out with the world’s first autonomous car themselves, but their effort is very close.  The 2014 BMW electric i3 also has similar features which take over driving in traffic jams under 25 mph as long as the driver has one hand on the wheel (Business Insider).  As with safety standards, Mercedes and BMW are leaders in including innovative technology that is later adopted by other manufacturers.

Laws that would stymie these efforts to bring new technology to automobile transportation should be avoided, as should needlessly long periods for studies that could have been accomplished when the technology was new.  The NHTSA should let states keep deciding for themselves whether or not to allow driverless vehicles and then create policy mirroring those, not study the cars for four years and then set national policy.  Most car companies forecast that we will own driverless cars by 2020.  It will be interesting to see if that prediction comes true, but it won’t if the NHTSA requires too much of driverless car companies.

Business Insider. (2 Aug 2011) 2014 BMW i3 Moves Us Closer To Autonomous Driving In Cities. Retrieved from

Cowen, Tyler. (28 May 2011). Can I See Your License, Registration and C.P.U.? The New York Times.  Retrieved from

Seventh Annual Allstate America’s Best Drivers Report Reveals Safest Driving Cities. (1 Sept 2011). Allstate Newsroom. Retrieved from

Lavrinc, Damon. (16 April 2012). Exclusive: Google Expands its Autonomous Fleet With Hybrid Lexus RX450h. Wired. Retrieved from

Ribeiro, John. (31 May 2013). Department of Transportation says driverless cars aren't ready for prime time. TechHive. Retrieved from

Dwoskin, Elizabeth. (31 May 2013).  The Federal Government Puts the Brakes on Driverless Cars. Bloomberg Businessweek. Retrieved from

Urmson, Chris. (7 Aug 2013). The self-driving car logs more miles on new wheels. Official Google Blog. Retrieved from

English, Andrew. (20 Nov 2012). New Car Tech: 2014 Mercedes-Benz S-Class. Road & Track. Retrieved from

Healey, James. (30 May 2013). Feds to study self-driving cars, urge state caution. USA Today. Retrieved from

Thanks to Gabriel Rousseau for proof-reading this post.


  1. I appreciate the potential improvements to safety and congestion of driverless cars, but I have yet to read any response to the fact that this will just make driving more attractive. Self-driving cars could become a single-occupancy transit vehicle, which could be devastating for cities. Many people would be willing to have longer commutes if it meant they could have the benefits of transit (lower stress, able to complete other tasks while traveling) while maintaining the privacy of a personal vehicle.

    I'm curious if you've read any cautionary tales on this topic. Most of the writing I've seen on self-driving cars has been focused on the benefits with little attention paid to the costs.

  2. Glen - interesting piece.

    But it seems like there is a pretty big elephant in the room that is not being addressed.

    The focus of your piece is on technology and safety and ultimately how these new driverless cars (current technology) could lead to fewer motor vehicle deaths (safety). But what about the simple fact that this is an endorsement to put more cars on the road? In effect this scheme would enable untold numbers of people who should not be on the roads (due to age, disability, criminal record, etc.) to purchase a new car to ferry them around. I don't see how any rational argument can be made that these will decrease vehicle use. And worse yet - single user vehicle use.

    Also, regarding safety - (and no, I have not read much on google's driver-less car scheme) I'm curious as to how these cars are tested - and I disagree with you that the testing should take a back seat (pun intended) to the marketplace. My point being, if these are tested in controlled environments that's one thing (and I would argue - not sufficient) - but streets are incredibly dynamic with pedestrians (see Mike Armstong's blog on Chicago crosswalks) and the ever-changing bike path, lane, cycle-track, etc. issues - to say nothing of the other drivers on the road.
    I would argue we should be doing more to remind people that driving is not a right it is a privilege and one that comes with an understanding of the seriousness of what you are doing when you get behind the wheel. My fear is that this google scheme makes, through technology, yet another activity more passive to the people doing it and more aloof to the greater consequences and impact of their actions.


  3. I was raised by my father, to embrace the road. To negotiate each corner with enthusiasm and skill. That is, I was taught to be a driver. To have a relationship with the road and its many different conditions and personalities. I find satisfaction and excitement when I I take a 35 MPH corner at 60, cut the edge of the apex, downshift and accelerate out at 75. Its a primal experience. To be behind the wheel of a vehicle that was built to drive is an exhilarating and distinctly human experience. It is an experience that transcends racial and cultural boundaries. It is a source of joy for people the world over.

    Many things people do to stimulate joy in their lives come with some level of accepted risk. Ski Diving, bungee jumping, swimming are all activities that bring someone into fatal risk. I accept the risks of driving when I get behind the wheel. A computer might also. But computers are not able to experience the other side of that risk. The experience of driving.

    As an individual that considers himself a drive rather than the operator of an automobile I must articulate my sadness as trends are moving toward the removal of the human element from vehicular travel.

  4. every year this technology is adding more advanced ways to self driving cars. many cars now has the ability to park themselves, accelerate and brake when get close to a front car in highways with the help of an advanced cruise speed addition, Mercedes Benz might announce later this year of a system helps in maintain the car between white lanes in Highway roads.
    many states are allowing self driving cars to be tested and drive in like California, Florida, Nevada and Texas to help in the development of the technology. By 2025 we might see fully self driving cars in the streets. don't be surprised.

  5. Hey Glen, I really liked your piece.

    I work for a public opinion research group (we provide mobile/web-based polling services) in San Jose, CA, and would love to excerpt this post and use it to support an argument for the pro side of a self-driving car poll we are planning to run. (Of course, we give full attribution to individual authors and link-backs to their sites/blogs)

    Email me at if you're interested in putting your work out there/generating some more traffic to your blog...and keep up the good writing!

    (You can also check our site out at


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