Okay, what is your main concern about autonomous cars? I imagine most of your responses would fall somewhere around “being run over and killed on my bike”, just like mine. But while that may bother us, it is not the correct answer.

Not, at least, according to “IDTechEx [which] has provided independent market research, business intelligence and events on emerging technology to clients in over 80 countries” since 1999. The new IDTechEx report, “Autonomous Cars, Robotaxis & Sensors 2022-2042”, has apparently discovered that level 3 autonomous vehicle technology has been ready since 2017. “So where are the autonomous vehicles?” the report asks. “The answer lies in unclear liability rules, which have turned out to be a massive headache for automakers like Audi, Tesla, GM, Mercedes, and others.”

Aha! So it’s not whether you will be run over or not, but whom your surviving family will need to sue when you are run over that matters.

SAE level 3 means that, under certain conditions, the driver can stop driving: they do not need to monitor the road or pay attention to their surroundings, according to the report. “In reality, this would only happen in pre-specified, highly restricted conditions. Even so, where the vehicle is clearly 100% in control, the human driver should not be held responsible for a potential crash or traffic rule violation.”

Okay, check me on this: when the “driver” (using the word loosely) of an autonomous vehicle hands over control to the car, he or she also hands over responsibility. It’s like, set and forget and you, the potential victim of a misjudgment by the vehicle’s AI will not be going to court. Will the car?

This is Mr Musk. Will he get a ticket if one of his supposedly autonomous cars kills you?

“This creates a tricky situation for regulators”, the report admits. “The vehicle needs to be able to transfer the task of driving back to the driver with sufficient notice, to prevent anything going wrong.” So the vehicle may not be able to assess the situation correctly, but it is expected to correctly assess its inability to assess the situation correctly, am I right here? Seemingly, seemingly.

With what I find rather questionable optimism, the report hands responsibility for the conundrum to the lawyers. “Regulators are finally addressing this issue,” it says, and with scary sangfroid announces that “we are now on the precipice of seeing level 3 vehicles hitting the road”. A pointed and accurate but also deeply worrying choice of phrase. Can we be sure that “the road” is all the level 3 vehicles will be hitting?

Other traffic users in Europe, UK, Japan will be first to find out as UNCE regulations bring autonomous vehicles to their roads.

Just one of the activities that could be interrupted by that 10 second warning.

Here’s how Angus MacKenzie, writing in Motortrend in 2019, saw one potential problem.

“You’re rolling down the freeway in heavy, fast-moving traffic, following a truck. On your right is a shiny, new Volvo XC90 with a “Baby On Board” sticker in the window. On your left, a suburban outlaw in a $500 leather jacket blat-blat-blatting along on his Harley-Davidson. Suddenly, a large, heavy object falls off the back of the truck, right in your path. There’s no chance of stopping. What do you do? Stay in your lane and brace for the head-on hit? Swerve left and take out the motorcyclist? Or dive to the right and ram the Volvo?

“…what if you [had] the ability to analyze the situation in real time as it unfolded in front of you and logically determine a course of action? What would you do? Prioritize your own safety by aiming for the motorcyclist, minimize the danger to others at the cost of your own life by not swerving, or take the middle ground and centerpunch the Volvo, hoping its high crash safety rating gives everyone a chance of survival?

“Forget bustling city streets and complex freeway interchanges: Navigating a moral maze like this is the toughest task facing autonomous vehicles.”

But don’t worry, this will not be able to happen under UNECE regulations governing “automated lane keep assist on public roads” as long as the initial rules remain. Drivers would only be able to disengage from the task of driving if the vehicle speed was below 60kph (37mph); they were operating on roads where pedestrians are not permitted (i.e. motorways/highways); the driver is given a 10 seconds warning to re-engage and the vehicle has a driver ability recognition system.

So let me see. Taking Angus MacKenzie’s example, you would not be in fast-moving traffic but doing a maximum of 35mph. On the freeway. Ah, right. You would be given a 10 second warning – this is after the car decides that it doesn’t want to handle this particular problem and it has made sure that you are paying attention and your hands are somewhere near the wheel.

And here is the more or less current legal situation in the US.

“These last two are possibly the most important as they control the transition of liability from the vehicle to the driver,” notes the report (remember that?). “Furthermore, if the driver ability recognition system detects that the driver is unable to regain control (e.g. if they have unintentionally fallen asleep), then the vehicle is to get itself into as safe a position as possible.” I leave it to your imagination how that would play out, and the legal minefield that would result.

Japanese motorcyclists beware. You are the guinea pigs. “Japan was set to take full advantage of the regulatory changes at the beginning of 2021,” notes the report, “and in March 2021, Honda (based in Japan) announced that they would have the first level 3 vehicle on the road in the form of the Legend, which would be produced in a limited run of 100 vehicles and cost $100,000.”

So here is my recommendation to you, tomodachi. Beware of rich folks in – but not driving — Honda Legends.

(Images Wikimedia Commons)

 

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