In fact, it sounds good: cars that drive, take passengers and transport them to the place they want. Cars without a driver, without a steering wheel, that protect the environment and reduce the number of accidents because, after all, 90% of traffic accidents are caused by human error.
Euphoria reaches reality
However, some cases show that the new technique is not as perfect as previously thought. Also in Germany. Marko Gustke of the German Automobile Federation (VDA) says that at the moment, users are not willing to spend a lot on safety systems. "If we pack everything in an attractive, functional, more comfortable, with a suitable technological package, these vehicles may be better positioned in the market."
Gustke estimates that the first features will be available next year. First on the road: "We need collision barriers, splitting lines in good condition so the vehicle can orient and position itself." If there are traffic jams, the computer will take control of the car at a speed of 60 kilometers per hour. There will also be assistance programs so that, from 2022, the cars can circulate autonomously on the highways. But "we are still a long way from driving without a driver in the city centers," Gustke says.
United States in the lead
The autonomous leadership has advanced a lot in the United States in recent years. There, the traffic safety authority, NHTSA, wants to launch standalone cars soon, which are treated completely without human intervention in certain situations. Google has been testing this technology for some time in certain areas allowed.
They are "level 4" vehicles on the five-level autonomous steering scale. Level five, in which the computer supposedly dominates driving in all traffic situations and without human intervention, remains pure fiction.
From the driver to the simple observer?
"Level 1" refers to the car that runs largely without automation and has only simple safety systems. At "level 2", the semi-autonomous car already has track and parking assistants and also assumes steering functions. At "level 3", the direction is already quite automated. The car controls the steering, but only if the technology works completely. If there are, for example, snowstorms or heavy rain that leave the camera and the radar out of action, the system tells humans to take control.
But precisely this level is problematic because "people are not designed to be permanently on the alert," says engineering psychologist Mark Vollrath. Automated driving would make the driver bored and do other things. In addition, the distribution of tasks is not entirely clear. "Does the driver know what the vehicle is doing and what it should do?", Asks Vollrath.
The psychologist found that reaction time is significantly extended when people only observe for a long time. In extreme situations, even experienced drivers have had problems. "Here we had almost three times more accidents than with manual drivers," he says.
Responsibility of the driver or vehicle
Insurance companies regard this as an unacceptable risk. Therefore, they require a clear distribution of tasks between the driver and the technician at all levels.
A position supported by Udo di Fabio, chairman of the Commission of Ethics of Automation and Interconnected Driving of the federal government. In 2017, the commission produced 20 theses that guide the technical implementation. Next, it should be clearly defined and identified, in each situation, who is responsible for the driving, the human being or the computer. "When the vehicle is in operation, the human being should no longer have any responsibility," says Fabio, exjuez of the German Constitutional Court.
There would be a lot of confusion in case of an accident. "If the driver should oversee the technique then we will have to deal with the complicated issue of responsibility when things go wrong," he adds. Who would have to pay for the damages in case of an accident? "If you drive completely automatically, the responsibility lies with the manufacturer or the programmer, but not with the person inside the car," explains Di Fabio.