There have been plenty of surveys conducted in the past year-plus to assess how consumers feel about their potential future with autonomous vehicles. However, it's fair to say most of them have been a mixed bag: People may think of it this technology as a real "the future is now" milestone, but at the same time, they have concerns about how safe and effective these vehicles will be.
Indeed, a recent survey from the industry group Motional found that almost 2 out of 3 consumers say their biggest concern with owning an autonomous vehicle is with how safe it will be. Once that level of safety is broadly proven to the general public, though, enthusiasm is likely to surge, in part because they believe these vehicles will be safer than driving themselves (cited by 36% of respondents). Another 15% liked the idea of being able to multi-task while traveling by car, and 14% were enticed by the idea of this tech reducing impaired driving.
What's notable in these findings, though, is that people who consider themselves either "very" or "extremely knowledgeable about AV technology, were seven times more likely to say they're excited about the opportunity to ride in one as someone who said they were "not very" knowledgeable, the survey showed. However, only about 1 in 8 Americans expressed a lot of familiarity with the tech.
"People are more open to driverless vehicles than ever before — but seeing is believing, and this is technology few people have actually experienced," said Karl Iagnemma, president and CEO at Motional. "This report makes clear that familiarity is the key to adoption. As we get more cars on the road, we'll bridge the gap between the perception of this technology, and the reality of how positively and permanently it will change our daily lives."
Setting the standard
One of the easiest ways for companies to make sure their autonomous vehicle offerings in the next several years are as safe as possible is by setting industry-wide standards for how this technology is developed and rolled out. Right now, many observers categorize the world of autonomous vehicle development as a sort of "Wild West," so bringing more baselines into the process would be a boon. Researchers at the University of North Texas recently received a grant worth $500,000 to do just that from the National Science Foundation, according to the school. Specifically, this will go toward developing a training program for workers and researchers in the AV field, especially as it relates to an electronic infrastructure on which the overarching technology will be based.
Song Fu, an associate professor at UNT's Department of Computer Science and Engineering, noted that much of the technology undergirding autonomous vehicle operation is fairly cutting-edge. Not only do vehicle systems have to interact with new kinds of software, but they have to communicate with a number of outside entities (essentially via the internet of things) and share processing power.
Moreover, data risk should be a big point of concern, and UNT researchers got a second grant of $100,000 from the NSF to fund research into potential security and privacy problems that come with AV use, the report said. Specifically, Fu and research partner Qing Yang will examine how data-sharing between AVs can improve vehicle safety without posing privacy concerns. This comes on top of grant-funded research to improve data collection and processing in automated vehicles that is already underway at UNT.
Future challenges abound
Among the biggest issues drivers and developers alike will potentially face as more autonomous and semi-autonomous vehicles hit the streets — not only in the U.S., but around the world — is that people may overestimate their effectiveness and safety initially. In an ideal world, experts said that technology could be widely in use before the end of this decade, but it will likely be utilized by smaller subsets of drivers well before that.
Austin Russell, CEO and founder of a company developing LiDAR technology for use in autonomous vehicles, recently told Marketplace that fully autonomous vehicles are likely years away, and even those that currently require only some intervention aren't fully ready for drivers to fully disengage from their duties behind the wheel. Put simply, this technology is not as good at identifying and ably avoiding potential obstacles, or otherwise reacting appropriately to road conditions, as some may believe (or as they are marketed to be), potentially increasing risk in the short term.
Russell notes this creates an unfortunate perception problem for the industry writ large: "It gives the whole autonomous vehicle space a bad name for those things. It's like, 'Okay, well, why didn't it prevent [an accident]?' Well, it wasn't designed to do that. That was not the purpose of what that technology is in this current state. So there needs to be a very clear and distinct difference."
Finally, it's important to note that self-driving vehicles could one day be a lifeline for those with certain disabilities, such as vision impairment or even blindness, because an AV could effectively allow them far more mobility in their lives. At Northeastern University, researchers are trying to find a way to bridge the gap between current and in-development technology — which often requires operators to be able to see even if they aren't asked to drive — with a more all-encompassing set of systems.
For instance, even the vehicles that require little to no driver intervention may still be built with a digital touchscreen or tablet display that conveys information a vision-impaired person could not see, noted Shelley Lin, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at NU. Sometime in 2021, algorithms Lin develops will be put to the test by researchers at the University of Maine, who themselves work on developing self-driving vehicles. The hope is that the results can be used to develop artificial intelligence systems that are more responsive to the needs of any AV's operator.
Obviously so much of this field is still very much up in the air, in terms of how things are developing and will continue to do so in the years ahead. With that in mind, the more any company can do to ensure their vehicles are fully safe, and their true capabilities communicated to the public, the better off developers and drivers alike will be as the sector progresses toward the ubiquity of truly autonomous vehicles.
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