Should Computers Qualify as Drivers?

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As driverless car technology grows, so does the controversy surrounding autonomous motoring. Recently, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) came out to say they are considering self-driving cars to qualify as drivers under federal law. The statement came shortly after Google, the star of the driverless car, complained about California’s proposed draft rules stating vehicles cannot be totally self-driving and must have seat belts, a steering wheel, and a human behind the wheel.

Google argues that giving drivers the option to take control of their self-driving car could be dangerous as it would allow for an override of the computer’s decision-making process. While the response from NHTSA isn’t a complete regulation rewrite, it is a significant step towards Google’s goal. The federal administration said they’re taking great care to “embrace” technology  that enhances overall roadway safety, including self-driving computer systems, but needs manufacturers to certifying that an autonomous car can meet standards that could apply to a vehicle with a human driver.

While this is wonderful news for driverless car advancements, Consumer Watchdog, a nonprofit organization dedicated to making a difference for taxpayers and consumers, argue that NHTSA’s consideration is blatantly wrong. Their reasoning stems from Google’s own test data that validates the need for a human as a back-up system for driverless cars. John M. Simpson, Consumer Watchdog’s Privacy Project Director, said, “Google says its robot technology failed and handed over control to a human test driver 272 times and the driver was scared enough to take control 69 times.”

According to the nonprofit, Google’s self-driving cars traversed more than 424,000 miles in a 15-month period in which the driver had to reign control 22.7 times a month. Disengagement with autonomous vehicles appears to be fairly widespread with other manufacturers too, with Mercedes-Benz reporting 1,031 instances where a driver had to take control in a 1,738 mile test, and Bosch counting 625 disengagements during 934.4 miles driven.

So, why did Google’s cars have to be overridden? Reasons range from weather conditions, construction, reckless behavior by other motorists, and discrepancies where the cars’ sensors could not correctly perceive an object or obstruction. While the word is still out on the validity of driverless cars, check out Google’s own disengagement report and let us know your thoughts on autonomous motoring.

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