Is it realistic to think autonomous cars don’t need drivers onboard?

December 09, 2021, Kitchener, Ontario

Posted by: Robert Deutschmann, Personal Injury Lawyer

The aviation industry has had auto-pilot capabilities for decades, but aircraft continue to require human pilots on board. Is it realistic to think that autonomous cars won’t need to have drivers onboard as well?

The potential benefits of autonomous motor vehicles (AV) continue to be touted by manufacturers however there appears to be a list of concerns that need to be addressed before they are ‘set free’ on the roads of North America. These are concerns held by the public at large, by safety experts, and by regulators. Some concerns are valid, some are not – they will all determine how quickly true driverless car use is widespread.

The National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine recently published an article “”, by Christopher A. Hart. Mr Hart was the chair of the National Transportation Safety Board from 2015-17. In the article, he notes that over 90% of motor vehicle crashes involve driver error. In our collective rush to automation much is made of this statistic.

There are many benefits to automation. It removes human factors like fatigue, distraction and impairment from the safety equation. Automation could indeed save many thousands of lives in Canada every year by simply removing 90% of the human reasons for crashes. He goes on to note though that notwithstanding the decades the airline industry has been working on automation they continue to have pilots in cockpits of aircraft. Why is that? 

  1. What if the automation fails and
  2. What if the automation encounters a scenario that it was not programmed for?

Mr Hart says these very issues are at the core of what is holding back the automation of vehicles. He contends that driverless cars are much more challenging than aircraft and will take much longer to be fully functional than originally considered. 

“Aviation experience has demonstrated that automation concerns include inadequate consideration of “human factors” in designing automation, automation failure, and automation in situations not anticipated by the designer. To avoid a sceptical public delaying acceptance of AV automation, and continued losses of more than 100 lives a day in the United States alone, the AV industry would do well to learn from the aviation automation experience to avoid similar mistakes, especially given that serious problems with AV automation have already attracted, and are likely to continue to attract, widespread publicity.”

At the core of the problems are the following issues:

  1. Automation failure – what if the system simply fails
  2. Unanticipated scenarios – using the example of the American Airlines pilot forced to land on the Hudson River when all engines failed. This scenario was not one that autopilot was trained for.
  3. Street testing – humans are poor supervisors for street testing of automated driving systems because they lose attention easily. The fatality in Arizona in 2018 in which the automated car killed a pedestrian is an example of this. Public trust in the ability of AVs to safely drive the roads.
  4. Software security and vulnerability to hacking – how can updates be rolled out securely to all vehicles and how can the cars be protected against the ‘ever-evolving cyber invasion protocols’. 
  5. Ethics – who is doing the programming? Is the life of vehicle passengers, or the cyclist worth more or less than 2 children on the sidewalk when an emergency manoeuvre needs to be made.

While the list of benefits of AVs is long, Mr Hart contends that “major challenges must be addressed before driverless motor vehicles will be ready and accepted by the public for widespread use.”.


Posted under Accident Benefit News, Automobile Accident Benefits

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