Fully autonomous cars may never become reality, says US transport safety official

Autonomous driving technology is constantly improving, but will we ever see fully autonomous cars?

The top transportation safety official in the US says it’s unlikely.

In an interview with MIT Technology Review, Christopher Hart, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), said he is optimistic that self-driving cars will reduce road traffic accident fatalities, but they will still need humans as copilots.

Hart told MIT Technology Review that his agency’s experience investigating accidents involving autopilot systems used in trains and planes suggests that humans can’t be fully removed from control.

New technology has the potential to prevent road traffic accident altogether, saving tens of thousands of lives a year. But that assumes complete automation with no human engagement at all, and Hart said: “I’m not confident that we will ever reach that point. I don’t see the ideal of complete automation coming anytime soon.”

He went on to explain: “Some people just like to drive. Some people don’t trust the automation so they’re going to want to drive. [And] there’s no software designer in the world that’s ever going to be smart enough to anticipate all the potential circumstances this software is going to encounter.

“The dog that runs out into the street, the person who runs up the street, the bicyclist, the policeman or the construction worker. Or the bridge collapses in a flood. There is no way that you’re going to be able to design a system that can handle it.

“The challenge is when you have not-so-complete automation, with still significant human engagement — that’s when the complacency becomes an issue. That’s when lack of skills becomes the issue. So our challenge is: how do we handle what is probably going to be a long-term scenario of still some human engagement in this largely automated system?”

The NTSB is investigating the recent fatality of a driver using Tesla’s Autopilot feature.

News site Electrek  reports that Tesla is planning to introduce new safety restrictions to its Autopilot software, following that and other recent accidents.

The changes would cause the automatic steering feature to disengage if the driver repeatedly ignored alerts asking them to place their hands on the steering wheel. The driver would also be prevented from re-engaging the feature until the car is parked.

According to Electrek, the car maker wants to encourage Tesla owners to respond to the visual alerts and not to ignore them. In other words, even if you’re using Autopilot, you should remain vigilant and in control of the vehicle.

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