I believe autonomous vehicles will ultimately become the primary mode of transportation for large segments of the population, but before that occurs there will be a long transition where autonomous and human-controlled vehicles co-exist on the nation’s roads, which I predict will last a minimum 25 years to as long as 50 years.
The length of this transition, I believe, will not be dictated by technology, but instead by governmental regulations, lobbying by job preservation interest groups, and the persistence of traditional consumer/fleet buying preferences. As we approach this new era, the question is how seamlessly will autonomous and human-controlled vehicles co-exist? One thing is certain, as we trail blaze new ground, so too will we trail blaze new problems.
The co-existence between autonomous and human-controlled vehicles (along with others who use public roads) will bring new issues into play, primarily because self-driving vehicles will be built to be inherently law-abiding and risk averse.
One issue is that pedestrians and cyclists will quickly learn they can walk or ride in front of a moving autonomous vehicle and know it will automatically stop for them. I am convinced pedestrians and cyclists will take advantage of this safety feature. Most of us can attest from firsthand experience that pedestrians and, in particular, cyclists do not follow the rules of the road, even without the presence of autonomous vehicles.
In the future, pedestrians will realize they no longer need to walk at a crosswalk or even wait for a break in traffic, but can simply step into the street to force a risk-averse autonomous vehicle to stop for them. Because autonomous vehicles will automatically stop when detecting an object in front of it, some pedestrians and cyclists will be emboldened and behave as if they have impunity. From the perspective of passengers in an automated vehicle, it will be a different story as they are subjected to a constant seesaw of stop-and-go driving.
Co-existence with human-controlled vehicles will create a whole different set of problems. Drivers are prone to speeding, driving erratically, or cutting in line, to name just a few of the annoying things people do behind the wheel of a vehicle. There will always be people who drive aggressively for the thrill of it or to get an “edge” over other drivers. Once the novelty of autonomous vehicles fades, aggressive drivers will begin to view self-driving vehicles as “traffic pushovers” and seize the opportunity to “bully” them to give themselves an edge in traffic.
As mentioned earlier, the key vulnerability of self-driving vehicles is that they scrupulously follow the rules of the road. When someone tries to cut in line at a traffic merger, humans often won’t let the line cutter in. But, an autonomous vehicle will be programmed to stop when it sees an obstruction, such as a line cutter. In fact, aggressive drivers may specifically look for the autonomous vehicle in line and cut in front of it, knowing it will stop.
Drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists alike may find themselves taking selfish advantage of the safety features built into autonomous vehicles. Step in front of a self-driving vehicle and it will stop. Cut one off while you’re driving, and it will brake for you. These safety features leave open the opportunity for some people to shamelessly take advantage of autonomous vehicles and, by default, their hapless (and powerless) occupants. When you think about it, there will be many other opportunities to bully autonomous vehicles.
For instance, I can envision panhandlers standing in the path of an autonomous vehicle, stopping it in its track and not moving until a “financial motivation” is made for them to move out of the way to allow it to proceed. Or, how about teenage pranksters, who put obstacles or objects in front and back of an autonomous vehicle, essentially freezing it in position. In another scenario, imagine two vehicles waiting at a four-way stop, one self-driving, and the other human-driven. Even if the self-driving vehicle has the right-of-way, it will defer to the human-controlled vehicle as it inches forward. When exiting a sporting venue in an autonomous vehicle, you’ll most likely be among the last to leave.
The abuse described in this article may be a short-lived phenomenon. Since autonomous vehicles will be equipped with cameras, vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communication, and continuously tracked by GPS, a tech solution will emerge to automate ticketing abusive scofflaw drivers without a police officer present. This automated ticketing technology already exists with red light cameras and highway speed cameras.
In 50 years, or earlier, I believe human-controlled driving will be restricted to designated roads. In fact, I can envision these roads marked with cautionary yellow highway signs that read:
“Warning. You are now entering a Human-Controlled Driving Zone. Proceed with Caution.”
Let me know what you think.