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

5 January 2017 by Steve Blum
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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.