Excitement over the future of the driverless car knows no bounds. Well, almost no bounds.
Though researchers and automation advocates cite impressive statistics about autonomous vehicles’ supposed luxury and live-saving technology, a new 28-page white paper from the Association of British Insurers suggests there’s a rather bumpy road ahead for cars.
The paper, which was co-authored by car insurance experts and traffic scientists, argues that consumers have no clue how to handle autonomous cars. And this confusion poses some major safety issues.
Right now, many cars are equipped with advanced driver assistance systems. Services currently center around small alerts, like when a driver starts to stray from their lane and are met by a persistent dinging — the lane departure warning — until they correct course. But some systems have bigger features, too, like the ability to hit the brakes automatically if the driver gets too close to the car in front of them.
Fully autonomous cars aren’t expected for a few more years, however, with the white paper guessing they will hit the road around 2021. When they do arrive, the idea is they will do all the work, freeing up “drivers” to play video games, read a book, or take a nap, for those feeling especially trusting. But even fully autonomous cars will require licenses, insurance, and a human to be held legally responsible for any, er, incidents.
And that’s where insurers start to worry. The new report predicts that drivers will mix up advanced driver assistance systems and fully autonomous cars and rely on their cars to do things they’re not actually capable of. “[A driverless car] carries the associated risk that drivers may not fully understand the distinction between ADAS and ADT,” the report says, “and not realize that, while their car is increasingly sophisticated, it is not sophisticated enough to deal with all driving conditions, and as such they need to stay fully alert at all times.”
You might think that no one could ever get these two systems mixed up. But as the world moves toward fully autonomous cars, advanced driver assistance systems will get more sophisticated, creating a confusing technological continuum, where every car has slightly different capabilities.
Right now, Tesla is developing a non-autonomous “autopilot” system that changes lanes on its own, but only if the driver delivers such a command. In cases like these, it’s easy to see how this kind of “autonomous ambiguity” could startle a driver — or even cause a crash.
Still, the Association of British Insurers is clear on its overall support for a future chock full of autonomous cars. Right now, though they are pushing for stricter regulations. Specifically, they want a clear and universal distinction between assisted and autonomous vehicles, that let drivers know who — or what — is control. What’s more, they want manufacturers to cut the hype and advertise not just what vehicles can do, but what they can’t.