Only two months into 2017, self-driving cars have already gone through several triumphs and hurdles. The stories highlighted below are only a few of the interesting scenarios unfolding that will affect engineers working with self-driving vehicles. Achievements like Daimler’s “Future Bus” successfully navigating tunnels and poorly marked roads show just how far autonomous vehicles have come, while new legal hurdles and ethical dilemmas show how far we still have to go.
“Future Bus” Conquers Tunnels and Poorly Marked Roads
First, let’s hear some good news. Tunnels have posed a challenge for the navigation systems in autonomous vehicles because of the vast difference in lighting inside and outside of a tunnel. Daimler’s Future Bus successfully entered multiple tunnels without any intervention from the human safety driver on its treacherous path along Europe’s longest bus rapid transit line, which goes from the Amsterdam Airport to the town of Haarlem. This route also included crossroads with traffic lights, stretches of road with worn out traffic markings, and a foggy stretch of road that runs along a dyke. It also managed a top speed of 70kph on its route.
The engineers accomplished this by combining data from sensors, cameras, and other signal transducers. Using sensor fusion, the bus could successfully navigate within in a few centimeters. This is even more difficult with longer vehicles like semi trucks and buses that have to calculate paths for longer bodies. You can watch a recreation of their drive in the video below.
Uber Moves Self-Driving Taxi Testing to Arizona
Balancing the need to test autonomous vehicles in real world situations while ensuring public safety is no easy task. Back in December, Uber moved their fleet of self-driving cars from California to Arizona. This was in response to the California Department of Transportation revoking the registration of the 16 vehicles Uber was testing there. However, it seems there was more at play in this scenario than public safety.
According to The Verge, Uber pulled their testing vehicles out of California over a $150 permit. Uber’s reasoning was that their self-driving cars are not technically autonomous because they still have safety drivers in the vehicles as fail-safes. They also cited that Tesla did not have permits to test their self-driving cars, although, according to the California DMV, Tesla does have permits.
Uber's self-driving cars.
The whole scenario is bizarre. San Francisco, where Uber originated, is a good testing ground for autonomous vehicles because it has steep hills, heavy traffic, and lots of fog. It seems odd that the ride-sharing giant would give up access to such an effective testing ground over a few $150 permits, whether Uber was right or not. We may never know the full story of Uber’s battle with the California DMV. Maybe Uber will have a better relationship with the city of Tempe and Arizona’s DMV.
Who is Liable in an Autonomous Vehicle Accident?
The United Kingdom has come an agreement on how to handle insurance claims when self-driving cars get into accidents. Parliament came to the decision that autonomous vehicles need to be insured like any other vehicle.
The reasoning behind this decision is that insurance companies can act as a middleman to protect drivers and car manufacturers. Car manufacturers could be at risk by car owners tampering with their systems to cause small accidents to draw money from lawsuits. Inversely, drivers in accidents caused by malfunctions in their vehicles’ navigation systems would have to file lawsuits to receive compensation, which can be a long difficult process. It would then be left to the insurance provider to reclaim the money awarded to the accident victim from the car manufacturer.
Chris Grayling. The United Kingdom's Secretary of State forTransport. Image courtesy of the government of the UK [OGL 3]
What Will the Future Bring?
It will be interesting to see if other countries follow suit, or if their models for liability in autonomous vehicle accidents look completely different. As self-driving vehicles come closer and closer to taking over the roads, debates on the logistics and legislation to get them there should become more heated. It will certainly be an interesting ride.