autonomous hardware

Autonomous vehicles have created an endless series of unanswerable questions. As the technology continues to advance, decisions on how best to implement it have not. We’ve yet to discern who is liable in the event of an accident, how insurance rules would change, if they can coexist effectively with traditional automobiles, how they will impact vehicle ownership in the long term, and the infrastructure necessary to ensure they’ll function as intended.

There’s also a myriad of security concerns involving everything from the very real prospect of vehicle hacking to automakers selling the personal information of drivers. Both of those topics are about to come to a head as automakers continue shifting toward connected vehicles.

In March, the U.S. Transportation Department met with auto industry leaders, consumer advocacy groups, labor unions, and others in an attempt to navigate the minefield that is autonomous integration. The department previously hosted similar roundtable discussions in December after releasing the new federal guidance for automated driving systems, called “A Vision for Safety 2.0.” That guidance freed up automakers and tech firms to test self-driving vehicles with fewer regulatory hurdles to cope with.

However, the December report seemed to focus mainly on how little everyone outside the industry understands the new technology.

The government also acknowledged a lack of real consensus on any single issue and how that had to change before progress (or laws) could be made. The March talks were intended to remedy that, however new questions arose with no answers.

According to Reuters, a 39-page-summary of the meetings showed that a large number of participants “agreed that it is a question of when, not if, there is a massive cyber security attack targeting [autonomous vehicles]” and that “planning exercises are needed to prepare for and mitigate a large-scale, potentially multimodal cyber security attack.”

The government is aware that autonomous vehicles pose the risk of a future catastrophe and are open to new vulnerabilities. But it’s less certain on how to cope with that or take preventative measures — which seems like an issue that should be addressed.

If that’s not dystopian enough for you, law enforcement officials expressed an interest in being able to control self-driving vehicles.

These officials considered the usefulness of not only stopping the vehicles in emergency situations but also actively being able to reroute them to a destination of their choosing and controlling their functions. As helpful as this would be in preventing high-speed chases, the idea that the government could lock you inside of your own vehicle is genuinely terrifying. Fortunately, meeting participants said opening up such avenues for the police could also create new opportunities for high-tech terrorists.

However, it does sound like the government still wants new tools for law enforcement that stem from autonomous and connected-car technologies. While the police may not be able to stop your vehicle and lock you inside, they will probably be able to track it remotely.

“At the end of the day, policymakers likely need to answer 10 to 15 key questions,” said Derek Kan, the Transportation Department’s undersecretary for policy, according to the summary. “These range from things like, how do you integrate with public safety officials? Should we require the exchange of data? What are our requirements around privacy or cyber security? And how do we address concerns from the disability and elderly communities?”

The disabled and elderly are demographics that stand to benefit from self-driving vehicles. However, the blind would still need a special way to interact with them. The same could be true for the elderly — who are less likely to feel comfortable with them. Likewise, would a person need a valid driver’s license to own and operate an autonomous vehicle? If so, wouldn’t these communities be limited to autonomous cabs, which already serve a similar purpose as traditional taxi services?

That probably depends on how the vehicle is designed. With no controls, there likely isn’t any reason to have a license. In January, General Motors filed a petition asking the Transportation Department for approval to deploy a fully autonomous car without a steering wheel or pedals as part of a new ride-sharing fleet slated for a 2019 debut. After reviewing GM’s petition for six months, there’s still no decision from the government.

Likewise, after a series of fatal incidents involving semi-autonomous features and self-driving test cars hit the news, the government withdrew some of its earlier support, adopting a more cautious approach. Legislation that would ultimately make it even easier for automakers to get thousands of self-driving cars on the road without human controls stalled in Congress. But these decisions can’t be idled forever.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said in San Francisco on Tuesday that “one thing is certain — the autonomous revolution is coming. And as government regulators, it is our responsibility to understand it and help prepare for it.”

The Transportation Department expects to release an update to its existing autonomous vehicle guidance later this summer. Hopefully, it addresses some of the issues brought up during the meetings, because we’re working without a net right now and nobody seems to have any idea of what should be done.

[Image: Ford Motor Co.]





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