Driverless Commute – January 26

Welcome again to Driverless Commute, presented by Dentons, a weekly digest clocking the most important technical, legal and regulatory developments shaping the path to global autonomy.

1. Danger, Will Robinson!

The evolutionary leap toward artificial intelligence is, experts agree, entering its most dangerous phase, hurtling into a marketing-induced bedlam in which society has assumed broad misconceptions about the computing powers of contemporary driverless cars.

Now, the mania is partly a result of aggressive branding campaigns—you could be forgiven for thinking a function branded as “autopilot” would, well, automatically pilot your craft—but mostly it’s borne of stupidity.

Sorry, not sorry.

Consider: California law enforcement reported that a semi-autonomous Tesla Model S slammed into a parked fire engine (that was serving as a barricade blocking off the scene of an earlier collision) during a busy Monday morning commute. The driver said the vehicle, which was traveling at a speed of 60 mph at the time of the wreck, was operating in autopilot mode, which registers somewhere between Levels 2 and 3 in SAE’s 6 tiers of autonomy, though law enforcement has not yet confirmed this.

Tesla owner manuals repeatedly warn drivers to keep their attention focused on the road while the semi-autonomous autopilot program is engaged. It directly warns users that the platform’s traffic-aware cruise control “cannot detect all objects and may not break/decelerate for stationary vehicles, especially in systems when you are driving over 50 mph (80 km/h).”

Said another way: That Tesla isn’t going to drive you to work or home from the bar, dummy.

Federal traffic regulators have said they will launch an inquiry into the accident, as they did in 2016 in the wake of a notorious, fatal crash in which another Tesla Model S driver plowed his vehicle through a big rig.

Over the weekend, California highway troopers arrested a drunken Tesla driver sleeping one off in his car. The vehicle had come to rest in a middle-lane of the Bay Bridge after the driver stopped responding to prompts to keep his hands on the wheel.

The driver, who was intoxicated at a level twice the legal limit, told police he thought everything was kosher: He had one of those driverless cars.

We yield this week’s rant to The Guardian:

“The oft-repeated promise of driverless technology is that it will make the roads safer by reducing human error, the primary cause of accidents. However, automakers have a long way to go before they can eliminate the driver altogether. What’s left is a messy interim period when cars are being augmented incrementally with automated technologies such as obstacle detection and lane centering. … However, research has shown that drivers get lulled into a false sense of security to the point where their minds and gazes start to wander away from the road. People become distracted or preoccupied with their smartphones. So when the car encounters a situation where the human needs to intervene, the driver can be slow to react. At a time when there is already a surge in collisions caused by drivers distracted by their smartphones, we could be entering a particularly dangerous period of growing pains with autonomous driving systems. …

“Waymo, Google’s self-driving car spin-off, discovered the handoff problem when it was testing a ‘level 3’ automated driving system – one that can drive itself under certain conditions, but in which the human still needs to takeover if the situation becomes tricky. The next level, four, is what most people consider ‘fully autonomous.’ …

“During testing, Waymo recorded … video footage of drivers texting, applying makeup and even sleeping behind the wheel while their cars hurtled down the freeway. This led Waymo to decide to leapfrog level 3 automation altogether, and focus on full autonomy instead.” (Emphasis added.)

Watch Waymo CEO John Krafcik describe some of that footage in his Web Summit keynote from last year:

2. Robocop

Eagle-eyed watchers of US Patent and Trademark Office goings-on caught the fact that Ford had submitted a patent application for an autonomous police car that could function “in lieu of” human law enforcement. (See the patent here.)

“The patent … describes how the hypothetical car would rely on artificial intelligence and use ‘on-board speed detection equipment, cameras, and [it would] communicate with other devices in the area such as stationary speed cameras.’”

3. Trust fall

American drivers are increasingly warming to autonomous tech, although a majority still harbor serious doubts, according to a new survey by the American Automobile Association (AAA).

The numbers: (PDF)

  • Three quarters of US drivers would be afraid to ride in an autonomous vehicle, while just 19 percent would trust the car. Women (85 percent) are more likely to be afraid than men (69 percent). Millennials, unsurprisingly, are the least afraid, trailed by Generation X and Baby Boomer drivers.
  • One-half of drivers would feel less safe sharing the road with self-driving cars while they operate a conventional car. Again, women and boomers are the most likely to feel less safe.
  • Six of ten drivers want autonomous technology in their next vehicle, while 25 percent say they would not want it. Seven in ten millennial drivers want the tech, while only half of boomers say the same.

4. Expansion pack

Apple, whose notorious secrecy had stirred whispers that the tech giant’s driverless Project Titan had fallen behind its rivals in both Silicon Valley and Detroit, registered two dozen experimental vehicles with California transportation authorities this week.

The move is a significant advance for the company, which registered second-to-last in the new Navigant autonomous leaderboard released earlier this month. It had previously registered only three modified Lexus SUVs with the state last spring.

Apple’s aims have shifted wildly from the outset of its project, which began as a tightly integrated, bumper-to-bumper driverless car and has morphed into autonomous software that could be leveraged by third-party carmakers.

Meanwhile Waymo (nee Google) announced this week that it was deploying its Chrysler Pacifica minivans to metro Atlanta, GA, home to the world’s busiest airport and six of the nation’s most congested interstates.

The Dixie excursion marks the southeastern hub’s first autonomous pilot, and the 25th test city for Waymo. The company has not yet disclosed which cities in the sprawling metro area it will operate in, or how soon users can expect to hail a driverless ride.

The Driverless Commute, a subscription-based service, is provided by Dentons’ global Autonomous Vehicles team. If you believe a colleague or associate would benefit from this service, please share this link so they may subscribe.

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Eric Tanenblatt

About Eric Tanenblatt

Eric Tanenblatt is the Global Chair of Public Policy and Regulation of Dentons, the world's largest law firm. He also leads the firm's US Public Policy Practice, leveraging his three decades of experience at the very highest levels of the federal and state governments.

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James Richardson

About James Richardson

James Richardson is a strategic communications counselor with 15 years’ experience advising presidential candidates, Global Fortune 500 executives, national nonprofits, and sovereign governments on strategic communications and reputation management. He helps lead Dentons’ 3D Global Affairs practice.

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