Tag Archives: toyota

It’s OK when dumb people kill, smart cars not so much

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Not even with the best intentions.

“Would we accept thirty-five thousand deaths at the hands of a machine?” That’s the question Gil Pratt, the CEO of the Toyota Research Institute posed as he discussed the challenges of designing autonomous vehicles at CES yesterday. U.S. society does accept 35,000 traffic deaths a year at the hands of human drivers. Might not like it, but humans are allowed to drive nevertheless.

Pratt doesn’t believe the same casualty rate, or even half that rate, would be acceptable if cars drove themselves. Logically, if putting everyone into self driving cars resulted in only 17,500 deaths a year, it should be welcomed with open arms. But emotionally, it’s a different story. “We don’t tolerate death by machines”, Pratt said.

That sets a higher than perhaps expected bar for companies aiming to make completely autonomous vehicles – fully level 5 by the industry’s five step classification system – that can drive themselves anywhere, at any time in any weather conditions, or with a passenger in any condition. Pratt expects it’ll be many decades before there’s a significant number of level 5 vehicles on U.S. roads.

The problem now, though is level 2. That’s a car that can drive itself in an uncontrolled environment but needs the driver to be constantly watching the road and the car, and be ready to take over control at any moment. It’s arguably the level that Tesla’s system, which is out on the roads now, performs at. The challenge is to hold drivers’ attention. Pratt said that the “vigilance decrement” is significant even after just half an hour.

Level 4 is Pratt’s sweet spot. That’s also completely autonomous, like level 5, but only in specific areas and under specific conditions – a sunny day in Kansas City for example. Otherwise, a human has to be driving or it doesn’t go. Pratt thinks car manufacturers – he didn’t exactly say Toyota would be one of them – will skip level 2 and 3 (which is more automated than level 2, but still requires a human driver to be ready to quickly take over) and go straight to level 4. He expects several automakers to be selling level 4 models in the next ten years.

Manufacturers willing to accept some liability for driverless cars

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Taking the blame, up to a point.

Self-driving cars might be less than five years away. Toyota is planning to put one on the road in time for the Tokyo Olympics in 2020 and Elon Musk has said that Tesla might have one even earlier than that. In fact, Musk has said that some existing Teslas could soon get a software update that will let them go driverless – or at least do the driving while a human watches – on highways and parallel park themselves.

Safety is a big concern, of course, but there will soon come a point – we may already have passed it – when a networked, computerised automobile is a safer bet than a 16 year old boy with car keys and a six pack of beer. And it will only get better from there.

But accidents will happen. This being the U.S., the first question will be who do we sue? That’s a problem that’s been vexing regulators and developers alike. The answer might turn out to be the company that built and programmed it. That’s what Volvo, Mercedes and Google have promised, according to a story on the BBC website

Ben Gardener, a solicitor at Pinsent Masons, believes Volvo’s guarantee is aimed at reducing uncertainty in the minds of governments and regulators.

“Volvo wants to remove the uncertainty of who would be responsible in the event of a crash. At the moment it could be the manufacturer of the technology, the driver, a maker of a component in a car.”

Volvo also told the BBC it would only accept liability for an accident if it was the result of a flaw in the car’s design.

In other words, if you grab the controls and hit something, or if someone hits you, the normal rules apply.

Volvo’s declaration is only a partial solution, though. The hardware and software are only a piece of the puzzle, albeit a big one. Telecoms companies will connect self-driving cars to third party databases and other services, for example. No one has worked out yet who’s to blame if a server crash causes a real one.