MENDON — Cars of the future are already here. You’ve likely driven next to a self-driving car on Interstate 15 without even realizing it. Some experts say babies born today will never learn how to drive.
Experts say we’ll see gradual changes with driverless cars over the next five years, and major changes in 10 plus years.
Tucked in the mountains of Cache County, a Utah company has been on the cutting edge of driverless technology for 18 years.
Autonomous Solutions, Inc. makes driverless tractors and other autonomous farm and mining vehicles. “It’s not quite the moon race, but with as competitive as a lot of these companies are getting, it feels kind of like that,” said Matt Nielsen, marketing manager at ASI.
ASI’s software can make any vehicle driverless. The automotive industry it to test cars and trucks for durability. “We do work with Ford, Toyota, Chrysler,” said Nielsen.
Driving on autopilot
There are a couple hundred partially driverless vehicles on Utah roads, experts say, and a few thousand nationwide.
“We’re hands free right now?” asked KSL’s Heather Simonsen as she rode on autopilot on I-15 in a Tesla owned by Patrick Wiggins.
While Wiggins’ car drove on its own, Tesla still requires an attentive driver.
After driving one for three years, Wiggins said any problems have been minor. He feels safer when his Tesla is on autopilot. “Oh, heavens, yes,” he said. “I think of it very much like the Borg on Star Trek, except this is the good Borg, right?”
A poll commissioned by Advocates for Highway & Auto Safety found 64 percent of Americans are concerned about sharing the road with driverless cars.
Some people we spoke with also said they wouldn’t feel so safe.
“Definitely unsafe,” said Jason, who didn’t want us to use his last name. “You might hit somebody. Somebody might hit you. You can’t control people, or control it.”
Anderson Francisco said, “I do worry about whether or not the programmers actually thought about every aspect.”
Pele Tukunga has concerns about cybersecurity. “Sometimes people could hack into the computer and something could go wrong,” she said.
“Everything eventually can be hacked,” said Blaine Leonard with the Utah Department of Public Safety said. He said it’s an issue the auto industry has to tackle as driverless technology becomes more common.
A bigger concern, for now, is the transition period while traditional vehicles and driverless cars navigate the same roads together.
“The automated vehicle is going to follow the rule that says, ‘yellow, stop, begin to brake, slow down.’ And we’ve seen rear-end crashes where humans behind have crashed,” said Richard Wallace, with the Center for Automotive Research.
Nationwide, there have been three fatal accidents involving autonomous vehicles. Two are still under investigation but in each case, it appears it wasn’t the car, but the driver that was at fault.
On March 18, 2018, a self-driving Uber killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona. The Tempe Police Department released portions of the video which shows the safety driver was distracted.
On March 23, 2018, a Tesla in autopilot crashed into a freeway divider, killing the driver. Tesla released a statement saying, “The driver had received several visual and one audible hands-on warning earlier in the drive but the vehicle logs show that no action was taken.”
In 2016, an autonomous Tesla collided with a tractor trailer crossing an uncontrolled intersection in Florida, killing the Tesla driver. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported it “did not identify any defects in the design or performances of the AEB or Autopilot systems,” nor did it find “any incidents in which the systems did not perform as designed.”
The next hurdle will be getting autonomous vehicles to respond well in spontaneous situations like storms and road construction.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk said that autopilot will never be perfect, but in the future it can reduce accidents by a factor of 10.
Texting, talking on the phone, driving tired: all contribute to accidents.
“We believe that technology will solve those problems in the long-term, that taking some of those driving functions out of the hands of the human will enable the vehicles to move more safely, more uniformly, and actually get us to our destination,” Leonard said.
As the technology is gaining speed, state and federal laws have yet to catch up.
That’s why Utah Representative Robert Spendlove is pushing the legislature to make clearer laws to prepare the state for the driverless surge.
“We have such a great opportunity in Utah. We’re the home of Silicon Slopes. We have this great high-tech sector. We’ve got really good testing environments,” Spendlove said. He hopes his bill to fully legalize self-driving cars will pass next year, putting Utah at the forefront.
Safety experts have called for delays in legislation until federal investigations into recent crashes are complete.
Roads of the future
Meanwhile, back at ASI, general manager Devin Stewart says his team will keep innovating, keeping pace with the auto industry.
He looks forward to a day when at “10 o’clock at night we could all rest and sleep and wake up at Disneyland the next morning,” he said. “Our conceptual idea of how we travel from point A to point B as humans will now take on a whole new light.”
It’s a race that some say will have more widespread impacts on society than the transformation from horses, to horsepower.
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