The Ubiquity of Fully Autonomous Cars is Inevitable

“The Rise of Self-Driving and Connected Cars” panel at SXSW, photo by Hojun Choi.

By HOJUN CHOI
Reporter with Silicon Hills News

Industry analysts have argued that the mainstream use of self-driving cars is inevitable, suggesting that the technology will be a norm within the next 30 years.

At this year’s “Innovation Policy Day” at South by Southwest, the Consumer Technology Association hosted a panel in which experts from academia, advocacy and the automobile industry shared their views on how government regulations can better facilitate the assimilation of this new technology.

A significant portion of the discussion, titled “The Rise of Self-Driving and Connected Cars,” revolved around regulations related to the safety standards of self-driving motor vehicles.

Hilary Cain, a representative of Toyota Motor North America, Inc., said her company’s invested interest in driverless car technology was largely driven by the fact that tens of thousands of drivers die in traffic incidents every year in the U.S. alone.

“Figuring out a way to dramatically reduce that number has led us to this self-driving technology revolution,” Cain said.

Cain, who serves as the company’s director of technology and innovation policy, said it is important to educate the public on the responsibilities that drivers will retain as the use of these vehicles becomes more widespread.

“Education of consumers could not be more essential than it is right now, especially if we’re dealing a variety of things that fall into the category of self-driving, driver-less or autonomous,” Cain said.

Despite what may be implied, she said these labels should not serve to diminish the role of the driver, as their attention and action may be pivotal in emergency situations.

In November 2015, Toyota announced that it would invest $1 billion into a new subsidiary, Toyota Research Institute, Inc., to research and develop artificial intelligence technology for autonomous vehicles.

Ram Vasudevan, an engineering professor at the University of Michigan, said the technology will take some time to be integrated into society, and said experts need to learn how to inform and educate consumers in an engaging way.

Though safety standards are currently being studied through road tests by companies like Google Inc., Vasudevan said the research is largely focused in California and Arizona.

“What everyone has realized is that this can only get us so far, we need to think about the ways to really find out how safe the system is,” Vasudevan said.

He said researchers will be playing a critical role in the simulation process, as automated systems cannot yet detect the wide variety of hazards that exist on and off the road. He also said not all companies that are leading the industry are depending on academics for help in research and development.

“Tesla, for example, is different from Ford and Toyota in that they have decided to keep their research completely in-house. I don’t know which strategy is going to pay off, but I would guess that it is going to take a combination of both,” Vasudevan said.

Cathy Chase, who spoke on behalf of the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, said researchers into safety standards should take care to communicate their finding and knowledge with consumers as frequently as possible.

“Consumers need to be involved, and transparency is key. The more that the public knows and understands what is happening here, the better,” Chase said.

Chase serves as the vice president for government affairs for the auto safety advocacy group, which has lobbied for a variety of consumer-related safety policies. She said state and city governments will need the federal government’s lead on how to deal with the disruptive impact of self-driving cars.

“I argue that the better way to go is for the federal government to have a more proactive role,” Chase said. “Guidelines on how to go about testing the technology would be a good first step, but there needs to be more.”

The all-day event was attended by five hundred people and also featured panel discussions on augmented and virtual reality, music licensing as well as tech policy under President Donald Trump. This was the fourth year that the Consumer Technology Association has hosted the free event.

Jamie Boone, who moderated the panel, said that policy makers and consumers need to come together to develop regulations that will shape how autonomous vehicles impact society.

“I think combining the viewpoints of the auto industry, safety industry and academia is a great exhibition of the need to work together to address some very complex questions that we all have in moving this technology forward,” Boone said.

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