Driving Towards Full Autonomy

Driving Towards Full Autonomy
What decision would a self-driving car make? (Photo: Ford)

Self-driving vehicles are coming, and fleet professionals need to stay on top of emerging trends.

Fleet managers need to stay in the autonomous vehicle loop, as the development of this technology will make their jobs easier while also making roads safer. At least this is the opinion of Jennifer Haroon, President & CEO of Nauto, a California company whose mission is to improve fleet vehicle safety. Among other things, Haroon helped NAFA I&E participants gain a better understanding of the five levels of automotive autonomy.

Conflicting opinions

While we believe that autonomous vehicles will be smarter and safer than humans, many people remain fearful as to their eventual deployment, she explained. While some people are disturbed by the fact that pilot projects are currently being conducted on public roads, others are questioning the moral principles programmed into these vehicles. “In the event of an accident, will they choose to protect children, elders, or mothers?”

Beginning with the fact that 90% of accidents are caused by human behaviour, and that machines react more quickly than humans, autonomous vehicles have the potential to make roads safer by reducing the number of accidents. In the U.S., road accidents take the lives of 40,000 Americans each and every year (Canadian fatalities number 1,841) while annually, accidents cause injury to over 50 million people worldwide.

Autonomous, but to what extent?

At Level 0 autonomy, the driver controls all vehicle functions and no systems intervene, with the exception of those keeping the cabin comfortable, such as heating and A/C. At the other end of the spectrum, at levels 4 and 5, the driver can hand over all driving functions to the system, without intervention, even in emergencies.

At Level 2 autonomy, the system controls steering, acceleration, and braking, and the usage parameters are clearly defined. The driver must continually survey the road and be ready to intervene and take control when requested to do so by the system. This is the most common level deployed in current vehicles.

For Haroon, Level 3 autonomy is by far the most dangerous. At this stage, the vehicle can drive itself, recognize its limitations, and notify the driver. The problem lies in the fact that the driver must take back control when the technology requests it. “However, it may prove difficult to act accordingly in urgent situations, when only seconds earlier, the driver wasn’t concerned about driving,” she adds. “Especially when you take into consideration that human reaction times are longer than that of machines. In short, chances are that the driver won’t be able to avoid the accident.”

Defining rules

“Governments are slow in implementing legislation, but the time will come,” Haroon predicts, “when you will acquire autonomous trucks, and you will want to know which rules apply.” Numerous issues must be debated before these vehicles are deployed en masse on our roads. Will these machines, which are continually learning, be required to pass various tests (similar to driving permits) before they can be allowed to operate on public roads?

On the insurance front, the age of the driver and the area where vehicles are registered currently dictate rates. How will we set insurance rates and determine responsibility with autonomous vehicles? “One thing is certain,” notes the expert, “vehicle sensors will determine the circumstances which caused the accident.”

Convinced as to the potential of autonomous vehicles, Haroon believes that fleet companies must start using available driving aides right now, so they can better understand the inherent benefits when fully autonomous vehicles will eventually be allowed on our roads.

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