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Ches Crosbie Barristers

The Future of Driving Without Drivers

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Driverless technology is already here. Road transportation in Canada will fundamentally change as a result. The question is not whether fundamental change will come, it is when and how it will come. 

As many people know, Google is testing a driverless car. Major car manufacturers will be marketing driverless cars by 2018 to 2020, three to five years from now. These manufacturers include Volvo, General Motors and Ford.

Ches Crosbie Barristers specializes in helping people with legal problems that arise out of injuries suffered in automobile collisions, due to human error. A frequently quoted 2007 study commissioned by Transport Canada found that 93% of collisions involve human error. The more technology takes over from humans, the greater the reduction of collisions which involve human error. This is undeniably a good thing. 

Driverless vehicles are able to find their way along streets and highways and transport passengers without human control. Another term for driverless is “autonomous”. Vehicle automation falls along a spectrum from fully human driven to fully autonomous. The United States National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has described automation in terms of five levels (with thanks to Charles Gluckstein and Kristin Walker for the condensation):

  1. Level 1 (function specific automation): Automation at this level is function specific. If multiple functions are automated, they operate independently from each other. The driver has overall control, and is solely responsible for safe operation, but can choose to cede limited authority over a primary control. Most vehicles are equipped with at least one automated feature. For example, in 2011 in Canada and the United States it became mandatory for all new vehicles to be equipped with electronic stability control.  Accordingly, all vehicles manufactured since 2011 are a minimum of level 1.
  2. Level 2 (combined-function automation): This level involves automation of at least two primary control functions designed to work in unison to relieve the driver of control of those functions. Most luxury vehicles manufactured in the last couple of years are at this level. These vehicles utilize shared authority when the driver cedes active primary control, for example, adaptive cruise control and lane centering can work together in certain driving situations. The driver is still responsible for monitoring the roadway and safe operation and is expected to be available for control at all times and on short notice.
  3. Level 3 (limited self-driving automation): Vehicles at this level of automation enable the driver to cede full control of all safety-critical functions under certain traffic or environmental conditions and in those conditions to rely heavily on the vehicle to monitor for changes in those conditions requiring transition back to driver control. The driver is expected to be available for occasional control, but with sufficiently comfortable transition time. Automated cars now being tested, such as the Google Car, fall within this category.
  4. Level 4 (full self-driving automation): The vehicle is designed to perform all safety-critical driving functions and monitor roadway conditions for an entire trip. These are the fully autonomous vehicles of the future.

Obviously, vehicles with levels of automation from 0 to 4 will be sharing the roads for as long as the stock of motor vehicles is fit to drive. (With our heavy use of road salt in Newfoundland, this may be a shorter period than elsewhere!)

And on the question of timing of the safety benefits of automation, the first generation of driverless or autonomous vehicles is not up to the challenges of Canadian winters. The Google car cannot see black ice or lane boundary lines when covered with snow. Light detection sensors can be confused by snow, seeing obstacles where there are none. In such highway weather conditions, driverless vehicles will require that a human driver assume control.

So when will the revolution in safety be complete? I can’t do any better than the famous investor Warren Buffett, who was asked about the impact on insurers of technology-driven increases in road safety:

Self-driving cars are a real threat to insurers if it’s successful. It can happen, but I don’t know how to forecast it.

This is another way of saying that predictions are unreliable, especially regarding the future. All we can say for sure is that as people purchase safer vehicles, safety will increase and accidents will decrease. This is the future with greater road safety, and it is a good thing. 

In the meantime, we have to live in an imperfect and unsafe world, in which injury due to human error is all too common. If you or loved ones have been involved in an accident which is the fault of another, Ches Crosbie Barristers can help.

(For more on how technology is making great leaps forward in driver saftey, check out another one of my blog articles here.)

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