To the Editor:
I appreciated "Reality check: Fully autonomous vehicles won't arrive for a long time" (Oct. 10).
It is encouraging to see so many sober comments on the issue from insiders; the mood, or at least the visibility of skepticism, has changed dramatically over the last year, especially since the assumed invincibility of "autonomous" vehicles was challenged by Google's brush with a bus and the Tesla fatal collision in Florida made doubt respectable if still not welcome.
The comment by the University of Michigan's Huei Peng that he "would argue that if you just talk about technology and reasonable operating conditions, we can almost say we have systems that are safer than human drivers" is interesting. It appears to overlook the fact that human drivers are safer in reasonable operating conditions -- clear and dry roads, daylight, good visibility, good mapping and sign-posting, clear road markings, etc. -- than in the conditions in which he implies technology is inadequate in the near term.
The data in a 2008 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration report to Congress on the causes of motor vehicle crashes, which we have analyzed, show that in more than 90 percent of the cases, the driver was responsible for the critical reason for the critical event that made a crash unavoidable; in other words, the driver failed to extricate the vehicle from the point of no return.
But what got drivers there in the first place? In only 43 percent of cases, drivers were involved in the hazard becoming a make-or-break scenario. Roads and weather accounted for 30 percent and vehicle deficiencies for 16 percent: Technology must contend with those.
Many of the items technologists call for to make their systems workable also would improve the safety of human drivers; for example, the need for good road markings, higher-visibility markings for large trucks, geofencing or segregation of different classes of vehicles or drivers, consistent rules of the road and signs, etc.
Spending money now on such things would move the goal posts for justifying Level 4 and Level 5 autonomous vehicles against human drivers even further into the future. In the U.S. (as in the U.K.), to quote Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx: "Our nation's economy and the way we live both depend on having strong infrastructure. But the truth is that our current levels of investment are falling short of what is needed just to keep our existing system safe and in good condition." I'm not sure where the breakeven point will be.
Let's hope progress is slow and cautious enough that technology stays below the threshold of being derailed by adverse events.
ALAN V. THOMAS Director, Consultancy & Research, CAVT Ltd. , Loughborough, England