Self-Driving Cars that Aren’t

The promise of technology and the reality aren’t necessarily the same thing.

Self-driving vehicles have received a lot of media attention in recent months. There are test programs involving self-driving taxis, consumer vehicles, and even tractor trailers. The notion of technology that limits the harm caused by human fatigue and distracted driving is attractive.(1)

However, we have several recent examples of failures in that technology. A recent race on a closed track in Brazil ended with a crash.(2,3)  A Tesla driver was killed when his car ran into a tractor trailer.

Google, an early advocate of self-driving technology, stopped publishing statistics on accidents involving these cars earlier this year.(4)

Mearian writing in Computer World argues that driving conditions vary broadly, that unusual driving conditions happen, and that it is virtually impossible to write computer code that could anticipate every possible situation.

For that reason, there will be a need for a vehicle in an emergency to revert to human control. In turn, the human driver has to be awake and alert to the situation and able to take immediate control of the vehicle. The change in control has to happen in a second.  There’s no time for someone to set aside a computer or wake up from a nap.

I had wondered how a self-driving vehicle could identify a flooded underpass. Right now, it seems it can’t. 

If you need a driver for a self-driving vehicle, what’s the financial benefit of investing in self-driving technology? Doubtless there will be improvements in sensor and in AI technology in the future that might make a truly driverless car possible.  Not now. Not soon.

The other issue to resolve is liability when accidents occur. When a driverless car is in an accident, who is responsible for damages — the owner or the software company? In the absence of legislation, the courts will have to decide.


  1. Adrienne LaFrance, “Self-Driving Cars Could Save 300,000 Lives Per Decade in America,” The Atlantic, 29 September 2015.
  2. Brett Williams, “The first ever self-driving car race ended in a crash,” Mashable, 21 February 2017.
  3. Jon Fingas, “Self-driving car race finishes with a crash,” engaget, 19 February 2017.
  4. Alison Grizwold, “Uber’s self-driving cars are already getting into scrapes on the streets of Pittsburgh,”, 4 October 2016.
  5. Steve Kovach, “Google quietly stopped publishing monthly accident reports for its self driving cars,” Business Insider, 18 January 2017.
  6. Lucas Mearian, “Here’s why self-driving cars may never really be self-driving,” Computer World, 23 February 2017.

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