Once only a futuristic dream, semi-autonomous vehicles have become reality in recent years, thanks to the efforts of innovative engineers and programmers. However, while today’s vehicles are equipped with plenty of automated technology, such as cameras, sensors, and actuators, we’re still several years away from seeing completely driverless (fully autonomous) vehicles on the road.

autonomous vehicle (Source: pexels.com)

Despite this, engineers and designers are hard at work creating the cars of the future and designing the advanced infrastructure that will accommodate those vehicles. By 2030, about 10% of vehicles are expected to be self-driving to some degree, and the demand for qualified engineers and programmers is growing. In fact, autonomous vehicle (AV) technology will create some 30,000 engineering jobs over the next decade, according to some estimates.

But within an expanding field riddled with emerging technologies, many questions exist in regards to the benefits and challenges of self-driving cars. For instance, will AVs make our roadways safer? If an accident occurs that was ultimately caused by a mechanical issue in an AV, who is at fault? How must roads themselves advance to better accommodate AVs?

Troubleshooting AV technology

There are six levels of autonomous vehicle technology, ranging on a scale from 0 to 5, as defined by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Most vehicles on the road today are Level 0, which means that a human operator is always in control of the vehicle. A Level 5 vehicle is one in which the automated driving system (ADS) handles all aspects of vehicle operation in all conditions.

We still have many years to go before Level 5 becomes a reality. Today’s AV prototypes fall within Levels 1 and 2, requiring the full attention of human operators. Some aspects of the driving experience are automated at these levels, such as braking, acceleration, and steering, but humans must monitor the driving environment at all times.

Engineers, therefore, must be sure to integrate aspects of human-centered design into AV technology. The user experience is paramount within the operation of autonomous vehicles; thus, self-driving vehicle components need to be designed with the user in mind, just like websites, retail products, and everything else. In the realm of project development, the worst-case scenario is when a significant design error hinders the end user’s experience. But that worst-case scenario is compounded in the case of autonomous vehicles, in which a design or engineering error could put people’s lives in jeopardy.

AVs and liability

The Tesla company has a firsthand understanding of this type of scenario. Following a fatal crash in Florida in March 2019, Tesla has found itself at the forefront of AV safety questions. Reports indicate that the 50-year-old driver engaged the autopilot feature in his Tesla Model 3 and collided with a truck about 10 seconds later. The Model 3 driver was killed, and many safety advocates are questioning the capability of the autopilot feature.

March’s Model 3 crash was almost a mirror image of a fatal 2016 accident that also involved the autopilot feature of the Tesla Model 3. In its investigation into the 2016 crash, the National Traffic Safety Board (NTSB) found Tesla to be partially at fault, as the autopilot system design allowed drivers to rely too heavily on the system for too long. This fact opens up the question of culpability: Will engineers and designers be found liable for future AV accidents, especially as levels climb above 2?

For now, the answer is unclear, but we do know that the NTSB’s findings led to changes in both the hardware and software of the Model 3 autopilot feature. Tesla engineers have since reduced the time that a driver can go without touching the wheel: If too much time has passed, the system issues audio and visual warnings. Unfortunately, if the March 2019 crash is any indication, the autopilot redesign may still put drivers at risk.

Looking to the future

The truth is that drivers are always at risk on the road, and human error, rather than vehicle design, is the biggest culprit where accidents are concerned. A 2017 report from the NHTSA found that human error caused a full 94% of roadway accidents in 2016.

Therefore, it only makes sense that AV technology will ultimately make us safer on the road. Common causes of accidents such as speeding, distracted driving, intoxication, and fatigue will be virtually eliminated by the wide-scale implementation of autonomous vehicles. Furthermore, some legal professionals believe that self-driving automobiles will result in transportation that is more efficient, as well as safer. For example, AVs can travel closer together, allowing for more cars on the road and improving efficiency.

Engineers must be prepared for the emergence of more and more AVs on the road. Road designs must be improved and modernized to accommodate AVs, which typically rely on GPS. In the future, autonomous vehicles may be able to communicate with each other, preventing accidents and further increasing roadway efficiency. Presently, however, engineers should integrate human-centered design with AV technology to keep the industry moving forward.