Possible Self-Driving Cars Causing Concern In Windsor

Google Self-Driving Prototype Vehicle. (Photo courtesy Google)

The thought of technology taking the wheel and having full control of a 4,000 lb car barreling down the highway is causing concern for some engineers and autonomous vehicle researchers in Windsor.

Although the technology will revolutionize the way we drive, there are more questions than answers about its viability as a consumer product.

Self-driving cars are being pegged as a safer mode of transportation, but what if the technology malfunctions?

“I use a [new] personal computer all day, every day,” says University of Windsor Engineering Professor Peter Frise. “I would say that I have some kind of difficulty with it about once a week and it’s sitting on my desk, so it really can’t hurt anybody, but if it was driving my car there’s a concern there.”

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Frise fears the biggest battle will be to get consumers — regular moms and dads — to embrace and trust the technology 100%.

“Certainly humans aren’t the perfect driver either,” he says, adding that it’s rare for a vehicle these days to malfunction and cause a crash.

In fact, 1,667 fatal collisions were reported in 2014 across Canada. According to Transport Canada it has steadily decreased 41% since 1995 from 2818 deadly crashes. A person dies every four hours or is rushed to hospital every 90 minutes due to a traffic collision, Statistics Canada says.

But we’re a long way away from consumers buying and driving autonomous cars.

“These things still have problems and I think it will be quite frightening if the vehicle suddenly malfunctions and causes a collision and you’re sitting there not expecting it to happen,” Frise says.

Peter Frise

Peter Frise

Another issue that needs to be sorted out — the “hand-off problem.” That’s when the self-driving vehicle detects an issue it can’t handle and wants to turn control of the vehicle back to the human.

“Does it sound a buzzer? Does it flash a red light on the dash? Suddenly you’ve got to come out of whatever else it was you were doing, whether it’s talking to someone, reading something or just looking out the window,” he says. “And you’ve got to suddenly take over the car and probably it’ll be in a situation that requires a good deal of attention and skill. Not everyone will react to that properly.”

It’s safe to say robots are smart enough to avoid accelerating, “because they got bored and felt like they could beat the traffic light.” However, it has not been proven that technology has the human element, making decisions in difficult situations.

“If you suddenly have a child who runs out after a ball in the middle of the road versus a dog who has run out at the other side of the road, which is your decision — is it going to be to run over the child or the dog,” says Robert Kent, a computer science professor at the University of Windsor. “These are very real types of concerns and they raise the ethical dilemma that actual consumers will have.”

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Kent started working on vehicle-to-vehicle communication three years ago. His research is largely focused on ensuring vehicles on the road are aware of other cars on the road, how fast they’re travelling and navigating tricky streets.

A mix of older human-driven cars and self-driving vehicles is also a concern industry experts are expressing. The average age of a vehicle is between nine and 11 years, meaning it would take decades for self-driving vehicles to become the norm on the road.

There’s also talk of reducing the amount of safety features or hardware on a vehicle, Frise says, because it’s assumed less collisions would occur.

“I’m really apprehensive about that,” he says. “If they can make the vehicle less protective of the occupants because there is such a small likelyhood of collisions, then they could make the vehicle much lighter and then it will use less energy.”

Next, consumers will have to grapple with the vehicle’s cost and capabilities, much as they did when electric vehicles were brought to market.

Some may be dazzled by these autonomous vehicles at first glance, but Frise predicts hesitation will take the wheel and steer them in another direction.

“It all sounds great when you’re seeing a magazine article or a technology demonstration, but when it’s your money going out the door to buy something that is that expensive and has not established a true track record in the marketplace, I think a lot of people will hesitate,” says Frise.

Another issue that especially hits home for border cities like Windsor is different countries agreeing on the same technology, legislation and standards.

“We cannot have, for example, one set of technologies in lets say a Canadian car and another in an American car out of Michigan,” says Kent.

He adds without the same systems, going to the U.S. for a quick shopping trip in an autonomous car wouldn’t work and everything would go “haywire.”

Engineers want to stress that an autonomous car isn’t simply one technology. In fact, we’re seeing some of the self-driving innovations in our vehicles today.

Ford's lane keeping system. (Photo courtesy Ford)

Ford’s lane keeping system. (Photo courtesy Ford)

For example, some cars have lane keeping systems. Cameras monitor lane markings to help the driver stay in line. Active cruise control is another feature that automatically keeps your vehicle at a safe distance from the one in front of you.

Backup cameras, blind spot detectors and park-assist are also technologies in use right now that will be part of self-driving vehicles in the future.

And one big question on everyone’s mind — who’s to blame when a driverless vehicle malfunctions and is found to be at fault during a collision?

“Is it the car company? The automaker? Is it the company that made the sensors or the software, they may be different companies,” Frise says of the complex issue. “Or is it the driver, the person who chose to put the car on the street, in that place, doing what it was doing.”

Frise believes the insurance companies are still having a difficult time finding the answer to this.

Google recently developed a self-driving technology development center in Novi, Michigan. Google’s autonomous cars are being tested in four U.S. cities.

Google self-driving vehicle. (Photo courtesy Google)

Google self-driving vehicle. (Photo courtesy Google)

A project spokesperson tells BlackburnNews.com in all but one instance other vehicles were responsible for the crash involving a Google self-driving car. Since 2009 they’ve driven nearly 26-million km and encountered only minor collisions, majority caused by another car rear-ending the Google test vehicle.

“It’s clear that human error and inattention are huge problems on American streets,” says Lauren Barriere with Google’s self-driving cars, adding there have been no injuries.

Just this year Ontario also launched a ten-year pilot project given companies permission, pending approval, to test self-driving cars on provincial roadways. The Ministry of Transportation says there has been a lot of interest, but no formal applications.

The insurance industry is also navigating the new technology, trying to get a grip on liability when it comes to the humanless aspect to driving.

It’s being called a “real thorny issue” that insurers are curious about.

Pete Karageorgos, director of consumer industry relations for Ontario with the Insurance Bureau of Canada, says the insurance industry is still waiting to see how things play out.

“Perhaps auto manufacturers may be taking more of an active role because it could become a product liability issue if there is a failure of one of these vehicles and it results in a crash or injuries,” says Karageorgos.

Vehicle liability isn’t something new. Although driver error is the main cause of crashes, Karageorgos says incidents such as the GM ignition switch issue do sometimes put liability back on the vehicle.

“The question is how far will the pendulum swing to seeing product liability claims be the predominant concern for drivers, insurers and vehicle manufacturers,” he says. “I think that is one of the questions that has yet to be even cracked in terms of moving forward.”

Kent hopes to see the Canadian government step up and embrace this new technology just as much as private automakers have done. Ontario is showing support in a big way — the Ministry of Transportation approved a ten-year pilot project to allow self-driving vehicles to be tested in provincial roadways, which started in January. So far the ministry says it has not received or approved any applications for autonomous cars to be tested in the province.

The dream of self-driving cars coming to reality has existed for the more than 40 or 50 years, but Kent says we’ve come “amazingly far” in such a short period of time.

He says give it ten years or so and consumers may very well be able to drive off a dealership without even driving.