Safety Concerns for Self-Driving Cars in Houston

by Terry Bryant

How do you feel about self-driving cars? Are you excited by the thought of getting in a vehicle and letting the autonomous system chauffeur you to your destination, or are you terrified by the prospect of surrendering control to a self-driving vehicle?

Both mindsets are justified. In fact, many of you are probably of two minds about self-driving vehicles, and for good reason. Advocates of autonomous vehicles tell us that self-driving cars could virtually eliminate traffic deaths. Critics point out that these technologies aren’t ready for public use, and they caution companies against making them available before they thoroughly test them.

Whether you’re hesitant or eager, self-driving cars are coming to a road near you. Many Texas cities, including Houston, plan to work with research institutes to test self-driving cars on our roads. Uber has already launched test runs in cities like Pittsburgh and San Francisco.

Companies from Tesla to Google to Uber are racing to be first in the autonomous vehicle frontier. This competition is key to speeding up technological advances, but it might also present some problems if the competitors act hastily in releasing their new vehicles.

This is precisely what critics of Tesla fear happened with the company’s Autopilot system, which was at the center of the controversy surrounding a Florida driver’s death. A system like Tesla’s Autopilot has autonomous features, but a driver might still need to take over in certain situations. It’s not clear whether the driver, killed in Florida, wasn’t prepared to take control of the vehicle, or if the Autopilot system didn’t do its job.

Safety Concerns in Increasingly Autonomous Vehicles

Even vehicles that have autonomous features will require some driver involvement. That means that drivers need to know how to work with the autonomous vehicle, but it is not entirely clear who will be responsible for this training. Dealerships, for example, are currently selling vehicles with plenty of autonomous features, but many don’t possess the knowledge to explain to buyers how they work.

Autonomous vehicles also present some other safety concerns. For example, self-driving cars aren’t yet sophisticated enough to make certain subtle distinctions that human drivers make with ease. Uber announced last year that they were working to fix a programming flaw that caused cars to cross biking lanes in a way that posed a threat to cyclists.

Self-driving cars still have a long way to go in being able to deal with other circumstances, including unpredictable human behavior on roads, detours, weather conditions that make road lanes invisible, and situations that call for spontaneous decision making.

Time Will Tell if Companies Can Address These Concerns

Many of these concerns might be addressed as the feature’s programming becomes more advanced, but that could require a special effort by the companies working on autonomous vehicles. To make sure that these vehicles are as safe as possible, it is in the public’s best interest for companies to share their research. This is something that they might not be willing to do unless convinced, or forced, by the government.

In the months and years ahead, be prepared to hear much more about these issues. Self-driving technology is advancing at a rapid pace, and there is a big push at both the consumer and professional levels to make autonomous vehicles a reality. In other words – ready or not, here they come.