You Might Not Put Your Kids in a Self-driving Car, But How About Your Mother-in-Law?

While on a recent trip around the Midwest, another one of the reasons I haven’t been posting much lately, my wife said something that very much changed my attitude towards self-driving cars.  While listening to an NPR piece on Google’s self-driving car fleet, she said:

“You know, a self-driving car gives seniors their independence back”.

Those 10 words, changed my perception of the self-driving car.  You see, we’ve joined the long line of children wrestling with senior parents and driving.

If you’ve been a fan, or even a casual reader, you know that my general attitude has been that a full-on driverless car will take time to get traction.  Everyone wants to talk about one, some want to drive them; no one is talking about putting their kids in them.

But would you put your mother-in-law in one?  Especially one that is unwilling to stop driving?

A driverless car for seniors solves a lot of problems:

  • Mobility and independence return to seniors, and we enjoy more safety for them–and us.
  • Self-driving cars drive at the prevailing speed limit, so no more following behind a senior who can’t keep up
  • Zero chance of forgetting which pedal their right foot is on.
  • Turn signals made, and at the proper time.
  • As well as a host of other good driving techniques not usually demonstrated by pretty much anyone on US roads.

 

I, like Donald Trump, am evolving on this.

As we all know, and have even read here, Google is stacking up the self-driving car miles.

Which is a good thing, as testing is the only way to ensure the concept works.  Testing is just one part of building consumer trust in the concept of self-driving cars.

The other part is public reporting, a piece that’s been missing.  Since state governments don’t really have laws to force official transparency on Google, we have to depend on Google to self-report.  Which, for some, is like depending on the devil.  For me, I think they’ve got enough on the line that they understand the need to be transparent.

After a kerfuffle, Google has now begun posting regular reports on their self-driving car program.  They’ve been doing it at Medium.com.  As well as at their own Google Plus page.  Chris Urmson, program director, provides timely overviews on progress.  Granted it’s not as thorough as a review from a state DMV.  And who’s to say they’re not beginning to share more with the government?  But for us in the general public, it’s better than what we had before–which was pretty much nothing.  Here are a few tidbits of what they’re learning.

From Medium, the most accurate description of the average American driver:

Our self-driving cars can pay attention to hundreds of objects at once, 360 degrees in all directions, and they never get tired, irritable or distracted. People, on the other hand, “drive as if the world is a television show viewed on TiVo that can be paused in real time — one can duck out for a moment, grab a beer from the fridge, and come back to right where they left off without missing a beat” — to quote Sheila Klauer of the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute in Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do. That’s certainly consistent with what we’re seeing.

 

The posts give us an idea of how many miles self-driving cars are logging:

The most common accidents our cars are likely to experience in typical day to day street driving — light damage, no injuries — aren’t well understood because they’re not reported to police. Yet according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) data, these incidents account for 55% of all crashes. It’s hard to know what’s really going on out on the streets unless you’re doing miles and miles of driving every day. And that’s exactly what we’ve been doing with our fleet of 20+ self-driving vehicles and team of safety drivers, who’ve driven 1.7 million miles (manually and autonomously combined). The cars have self-driven nearly a million of those miles, and we’re now averaging around 10,000 self-driven miles a week (a bit less than a typical American driver logs in a year), mostly on city streets.

 

More on dangerous places to drive, and the scary people who drive next to us:

Lots of people aren’t paying attention to the road. In any given daylight moment in America, there are 660,000 people behind the wheel who are checking their devices instead of watching the road. Our safety drivers routinely see people weaving in and out of their lanes; we’ve spotted people reading books, and even one playing a trumpet. A self-driving car has people beat on this dimension of road safety. With 360 degree visibility and 100% attention out in all directions at all times; our newest sensors can keep track of other vehicles, cyclists, and pedestrians out to a distance of nearly two football fields.

 

Intersections can be scary places. Over the last several years, 21% of the fatalities and about 50% of the serious injuries on U.S. roads have involved intersections. And the injuries are usually to pedestrians and other drivers, not the driver running the red light. This is why we’ve programmed our cars to pause briefly after a light turns green before proceeding into the intersection — that’s often when someone will barrel impatiently or distractedly through the intersection.

 

Like us, they get hit for no reason at all:

Our self-driving cars are being hit surprisingly often by other drivers who are distracted and not paying attention to the road. That’s a big motivator for us. The most recent collision, during the evening rush hour on July 1, is a perfect example. One of our Lexus vehicles was driving autonomously towards an intersection in Mountain View, CA. The light was green, but traffic was backed up on the far side, so three cars, including ours, braked and came to a stop so as not to get stuck in the middle of the intersection. After we’d stopped, a car slammed into the back of us at 17 mph — and it hadn’t braked at all.

 

But they’re learning from the experience:

But we’re now driving enough — and getting hit enough — that we can start to make some assumptions about that real crashes-per-miles-driven rate; it’s looking higher than we thought. (Our cars, with safety drivers aboard, are now self-driving about 10,000 miles per week, which is about what a typical American adult drives in a year.) It’s particularly telling that we’re getting hit more often now that the majority of our driving is on surface streets rather than freeways; this is exactly where you’d expect a lot of minor, usually-unreported collisions to happen. Other drivers have hit us 14 times since the start of our project in 2009 (including 11 rear-enders), and not once has the self-driving car been the cause of the collision. Instead, the clear theme is human error and inattention. We’ll take all this as a signal that we’re starting to compare favorably with human drivers.

 

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Sebastian James

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