In a recent series of articles by the New York Times about self-driving cars, it has been noted that there are a number of challenges that technology companies attempting to develop these next generation vehicles are now struggling to correct. These articles describe the limitations of self-driving cars and while the unpredictable behavior of human drivers, has already been covered in a previous blog post, there are four other challenges that are worth mentioning.
Have you ever been driving and saw something in the road that everyone in front of you is swerving to avoid but you cannot make out what it is? Although self-driving vehicles use a number of sophisticated forms of technology such as radars, lasers, and high definition cameras to scan the road for potential obstacles, even these may not be enough to tell what an obstacle in the road is before the vehicle is right up on top of the obstacle and it is too late to do anything. Although several solutions to this problem are currently being explored, like smart roadways that communicate with self-driving cars to warn them of obstacles ahead, this is a problem that has to be solved by technology companies before self-driving cars truly become the wave of the future.
Have you ever been running late to a personal or professional obligation only to unexpectedly find that the freeway is being closed for construction? Roads are blocked off and detours established all the time due to construction, accidents and other factors with little to no advanced communication to drivers. However, these changes in traffic patterns can happen almost instantaneously, and the mapping software that self-driving cars rely upon to get from point A to point B may not be up to date quickly enough to prevent the self-driving car from becoming stuck in traffic.
As any driver who has lived in Chicago, or anywhere in Illinois for that matter, knows, the lines that mark lanes often disappear when it is snowing particularly heavily in the winter. Self-driving cars operate using cameras and these cameras are rendered virtually useless in blizzards, blinding rain, fog, or other conditions in which visibility is zero. In fact, this has proven to be such a challenge for the technology companies working to develop self-driving cars that Google and several other companies have reported to regulatory authorities in several states that human drivers were forced to take over control of their prototype self-driving vehicles during these exact type of weather conditions.
Sometimes drivers are confronted with no win situations in which the question is what the least of two bad options is. For instance, if a child runs into the road followed closely by his mother and you are faced with a choice as to whether to hit the child and his mother or swerve and hit a telephone poll, most people would say the answer is obvious. While you’ll swerve and potentially preserve two lives in lieu of forgoing some car repairs, a computer may not see this scenario the same as a human being. It’ll ultimately be up to how the programmer inputted this particular scenario into the algorithm that controls the car when it comes to knowing whether the self-driving car would make that same decision as most human beings faced with this terrible situation.
Whether the technology companies that are currently pushing the development of self-driving cars are able to solve some of the problems identified above as well as how long it takes them to do so is anyone’s guess. Until that time, human drivers will continue to be piloting the majority of the cars on the road and that means that people will make mistakes and accidents will occur.
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