For decades, humans have dreamed of driverless vehicles. From the Jetsons to Minority Report, we’ve gotten a certain idea of how those cars should function and how the world could be if they existed.

Driverless cars, however, aren’t science fiction.

“When people get into our cars, we often find that they’re unnecessarily anxious about the experience, and then we find that they relax too quickly,” said Chris Gerdes, program director for the Center for Automotive Research at Stanford (CARS, for short). Neither extreme is helpful.

That said, we took a look at some of the common misconceptions about driverless cars, along with truths that are good to keep in mind.


Driverless cars eliminate human error

The happy idea about automated cars is that they would totally eliminate human error– no accidents from texting, drunkenness, sleepiness, or even momentary inattention — but in reality, according to Gerdes, automated vehicles shift human error from the driving to the programming and design. “That can actually be a really good shift, but it’s not one to take for granted,” he said. “The idea that you could take a step back and program the car in the comfort of your office, in a lower stress environment to handle all these stressful situations is potentially a huge improvement in safety.”

Where the risk comes in, he said, is in failures of imagination. In order for a car to be able to handle a situation, the programmers have to have envisioned it, or something similar enough to it. “If you think about all the weird things you’ve ever seen while driving a car, and multiple by about 200 or so, that might be what you would get in 100,000,000 vehicle miles traveled,” he said.

For example, Gerdes was driving home from a Stanford v. Oregon game last year when a person jumped in front of his car. He slammed on his brakes and the person turned, and ran up the hatchback of the car in front of him, on to the roof, jumped off, and right back into traffic. “Imagine trying to come up with a perception system that understands where pedestrians might be. Have you programmed it to look on the roof of cars?”

He said it’s a challenge that’s both inspiring and humbling — the sense that they could take life and death decisions, and turn them into programming challenges.

Humans are bad at driving

You’d be forgiven for disagreeing– some days people drive like they’re trying to hit each other — but Gerdes still identified two exceptions to the idea that humans are bad at driving. Take race car drivers, for example. “Their ability to get to the absolute limits of what a car can do is, at this point, unparalleled.” Experience, intuition, and the solid ability to use friction help to deal with an emergency quickly. “When you look at designing the these emergency maneuvers, at the moment, the best humans are still better than the automated system,” he said.

The other advantage that humans have is how they understand their environment. It amounts to context and perception. “That’s something that computers are still struggling to equal. The 360 degree scanner might be more efficient than a human, but the picture is still not as clear because it lacks the depth of understanding.

Automated cars can drive anywhere

Greg Fitch, research scientist at the Center for Automated Vehicle Systems at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute said many people believe that Google, for example, has built a car that can drive anywhere on its own. “The car itself can only work in a very limited context right now. It has to be very good weather, it can’t handle parking garages because it can’t get a GPS signal. The reason why those cars can drive themselves is because they know where they are in the world,” Fitch said.

Passengers can be passive

An automated car isn’t an automated cab, Fitch said, even if that’s the eventual trajectory. He said that despite systems that keep a car in its lane, for example, manufacturers are expecting that car owners will be paying attention with a hand on the wheel and a foot near the brake.

However, Fitch said, the problem that’s starting to crop up is people not only being passive, but find ways to trick the car’s systems, the ones created to make the cars safe. In one instance, Fitch described a YouTube video of a driver who had taped a soda can to the steering wheel in order to fool the car into perceiving that he was holding the wheel. Another guy managed to climb into the backseat of the car.

“Believe it or not, that car could fail at any time,” Fitch said.


Automated cars can be more energy efficient

“If you look at how much energy we use move the person today versus actually moving the car, when you have humans surrounded by a couple of thousands pounds of steel, you’re probably spending on the order of 85% of the energy to move the steel and not to move the person,” Gerdes said. The reason for most of that steel is crash protection, but if you consider vehicles moving at lower speeds that could avoid collisions, the need for so much extra material diminishes and energy is more efficiently used to move people.

There’s an ongoing ethical debate

There are numerous questions still to be answered: How conservative should the car be to avoid accidents? Should cars be able to brake the law and speed in order to keep passengers safe? Humans, after all, make those decisions every day. Gerdes also brought up Asimov’s laws, and if there’s room to add to them.

“Asimov had protecting human life as a higher priority than obeying human orders, so all of our cars that we drive right now have this big red button, which the human driver can take over at any time,” he said.

However, if you’re going to implement something similar to Asimov’s laws, it could complicate things. For instance, if the car felt an accident was imminent, it might not let the driver take over because that would be responding to a human command at a higher priority than saving a human life.

There’s no centralized governance over driverless cars yet

So, who decides these debates? That’s still in the works. Government agencies and states are working with the issues, there’s also a standards committee from the Society of Automotive Engineers, which is looking at creating a set of voluntary standards for vehicle design, Gerdes said.

There’s a debate over whether cars should be connected

Fitch falls on the pro side of the argument. If cars can communicate with each other, they can share emergency messages or basic info like location, speed, and heading. Human drivers can be inefficient in terms of how they use the road. If a car knew what was around the corner, like another car, roads could be used better because cars could drive with less distance between them. The opposite view says that human drivers aren’t connected and can drive with just their eyes, so automated cars should, in theory, be able to operate with just camera vision.

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