TIME Autos

How Driverless Cars Will Sneak Up on Us All

Gov. Brown Signs Legislation At Google HQ That Allows Testing Of Autonomous Vehicles
Justin Sullivan—Getty Images A Google self-driving car is displayed at the Google headquarters on September 25, 2012 in Mountain View, California.

Our cars will gradually start doing more of the driving themselves — until they do all of it

The news that car-hailing company Uber is opening up a research facility to work on driverless cars foretells one of many possible automotive futures: A world in which personal car ownership is made obsolete by city-roaming fleets of autonomous cars waiting for you to ask them to come pick you up.

That particular future might never arrive. While major automakers and tech companies like Audi, Google and now Uber are hard at work perfecting autonomous cars, they have well-documented challenges in the form of technology and policy. But there’s another speedbump ahead, too: Convincing people to let a computer take control when they’re screaming down the interstate at 70 miles per hour. In an early 2014 study by research firm Harris Interactive, only 12% of respondents said they were ready to say, “HAL, take the wheel!”

For driverless cars to go mainstream, the companies working on them will have to convince consumers they’re as safe (or safer) than human-driven vehicles. The trick here lies in a gradual rollout. Semi-autonomous features like park assist or collision avoidance are already popping up in cars on the road today, marketed as convenience- or safety-boosting tools. (Such technology also helps manufacturers drive prices up.) That’s already gotten drivers slightly more comfortable with the idea that cars can do some driving themselves. Once those features become more widely available, it’ll mean that when cars start asking to do a little more—say, take control in a highway carpool lane—drivers will be more likely to let their car become a chauffeur.

What’s unclear here is what happens to automakers when one of them (or someone else) finally starts selling driverless cars. Audi, BMW, Ford and the rest would presumably prefer a world where millions of people still buy their cars. They don’t care if the cars are being driven by a computer instead of a person so long as they’re selling lots of them.

But the hypothetical autonomous Uber future clashes with that: Why should people bother buying a car when they can hail a self-driving car to their doorstep whenever they need one? In that world, Uber would still need to buy lots of cars, but it would probably be nowhere near the number consumers are buying today.

That’s the fascinating irony of automated cars: There’s a chance that, in building them, automakers could be innovating themselves into obsolescence. That explains why car companies are doing things like building Silicon Valley research labs: Their best hope might be beating Uber at its own game by supplying both the driverless cars and the software platform on which they’ll run. Thankfully for the automakers, they have plenty of time to figure things out before we’re all zipping around in cars without steering wheels.

MONEY Autos

Google, Uber May Clash Over Driverless Taxis

Google is reportedly developing a ride-booking app using driverless cars, while Uber is making a big investment in robotics. Game on!

TIME Autos

General Motors Open to Working With Google on Self-Driving Cars

‘We’d certainly be open to having a discussion with them,’ Jon Lauckner said in an interview at the Detroit auto show

‘We’d certainly be open to having a discussion with them,’ Jon Lauckner said in an interview at the Detroit auto show.

General Motors is open to working with Google on developing self-driving car technology, the chief technology officer for the U.S. automaker said on Monday.

“I’m not in charge of deciding what we will and won’t do, but I’d say we’d certainly be open to having a discussion with them,” Jon Lauckner said in an interview at the Detroit auto show.

Lauckner made his comments two days before the head of Google’s self-driving car project, Chris Urmson, is scheduled to speak at a conference held annually in conjunction with the auto show. Urmson is expected to announce his company’s plans to seek partnerships within the auto industry.

‘We’d certainly be open to having a discussion with them,’ Jon Lauckner said in an interview at the Detroit auto show.

General Motors is open to working with Google on developing self-driving car technology, the chief technology officer for the U.S. automaker said on Monday.

“I’m not in charge of deciding what we will and won’t do, but I’d say we’d certainly be open to having a discussion with them,” Jon Lauckner said in an interview at the Detroit auto show.

Lauckner made his comments two days before the head of Google’s self-driving car project, Chris Urmson, is scheduled to speak at a conference held annually in conjunction with the auto show. Urmson is expected to announce his company’s plans to seek partnerships within the auto industry.

Self-driving cars have been a hot topic for both companies in recent months. GM CEO Mary Barra made headlines in the fall when she said that some GM cars would have limited driverless tech, such as the ability to detect pedestrians, by 2017. She also announced that GM would be part of the team building 120 miles of so-called “autonomous” highway — roads with sensors that enable communication between cars — around Detroit.

And Google’s driverless car ambitions are well-known. Just last month, the Silicon Valley giantunveiled the first fully-functioning prototype of a driverless car. This model doesn’t really look like any car you’ve seen on the road, and certainly doesn’t look like something GM would produce — it looks more like something you’d see in a 1960s science fiction movie.

Combining these two perspectives and histories — GM’s ability to make cars that people actually want to buy with Google’s ability to innovate and push the technology envelope — could make a lot of sense in terms of ushering in the future of autonomous cars. Just how an arrangement might work, though, is a question.

“You have to figure out how would something like that actually work,” Lauckner said. “Would it be something where it would be an opportunity to work together in a joint development agreement?”

—Reuters contributed to this report.

This article originally appeared on Fortune.com

TIME United Kingdom

Driverless Cars to Hit Public Roads in Britain by January 2015

A Google self-driving vehicle drives around the parking lot at the Computer History Museum after a presentation in Mountain View, California
Stephen Lam—Reuters A Google self-driving vehicle roams around the parking lot at the Computer History Museum after a presentation in Mountain View, Calif., on May 13, 2014

On Wednesday, the British government will announce its plans to test autonomous vehicles on public roads by January 2015, but first the Highway Code will need to be revised to allow the driverless cars on the streets

Driverless cars will be hitting British streets for test runs by January 2015 — the British government plans to announce on Wednesday — although the Highway Code will need to be revised to allow for the changes, industry experts say.

The self-driving cars for civilians will be an extension of ones already used by the British army, which are provided by MIRA, a vehicle-engineering and design company.

Britain’s trial of autonomous cars will join the ranks of other countries such as Singapore, Japan and Germany, which have already started testing driverless vehicles on public roads, Sky News reports. Google also recently unveiled plans to test out prototypes of its computerized automobile, which has no steering wheel or pedals, in California this summer.

Google says the autonomous vehicles will “shoulder the entire burden of driving,” the Telegraph reports. Despite the convenience that will be offered by the driverless vehicles, safety on the road remains a prevailing concern for British politicians and civilians.

Suzie Mills, a lawyer at the British law firm Ashfords, told Sky News that the government will have the onus of “clarifying exactly where responsibility sits,” for consumers and insurance companies in the case of an accident.

While the autonomous car remains a work in progress, the British government seems to be taking the high road by allowing consumers the option of maintaining control over the car. A government statement released earlier this month said, “Fully autonomous cars remain a further step, and for the time being drivers will have the option (and responsibility) of taking control of the vehicle themselves. Vehicle manufacturers and their systems suppliers continue to explore the opportunities for full autonomy,” the Telegraph reports.

TIME robotics

How to Make Driverless Cars Behave

As self-driving cars become more advanced, auto makers may have to answer centuries-old philosophical debates -- and they're starting to realize it.

Imagine you’re winding through the Pacific Coast Highway in one of Google’s self-driving cars, with the ocean on your right and the hills of Malibu across the opposite lane to your left. Just as you’re turning one of the road’s blind corners, another car whips around the bend in the opposite direction. Its brakes have failed, and it’s headed for your lane.

With little room to maneuver and no time for human intervention, your robot car faces a decision. It could turn inward and slam the brakes to avoid a head-on collision, but this would potentially let the other car sail over the cliff wall. Alternatively, your car could brace for impact, keeping both cars on the road but potentially injuring you, along with the other car’s passengers.

In a crash situation, we don’t have time to think about morality, and studies show we act more on instinct. But for a computer, a fraction of a second is plenty of time to ponder an ethical decision–provided it’s been programmed to think that way.

The problem is that the answers aren’t always clear-cut. Should a driverless car jeopardize its passenger’s safety to save someone else’s life? Does the action change if the other vehicle is causing the crash? What if there are more passengers in the other car? Less morbidly, should a Google-powered car be able to divert your route to drive past an advertiser’s business? Should the driver be able to influence these hypothetical decisions before getting into the vehicle?

As driverless cars get closer to hitting the road, moral dilemmas are something the auto industry will need to consider. And while it’s still early days for the technology, a conversation about ethics is starting to happen.

The Daimler and Benz foundation, for instance, is funding a research project about how driverless cars will change society. Part of that project, led by California Polytechnic State University professor Patrick Lin, will be focused on ethics. Lin has arguably thought about the ethics of driverless cars more than anyone. He’s written about the topic for Wired and Forbes, and is currently on sabbatical working with the Center for Automotive Research at Stanford (CARS, of course), a group that partners with auto industry members on future technology.

Over the last year, Lin has been convincing the auto industry that it should be thinking about ethics, including briefings with Tesla Motors and auto supplier Bosch, and talks at Stanford with major industry players.

“I’ve been telling them that, at this very early stage, what’s important isn’t so much nailing down the right answers to difficult ethical dilemmas, but to raise awareness that ethics will matter much more as cars become more autonomous,” Lin wrote in an e-mail. “It’s about being thoughtful about certain decisions and able to defend them–in other words, it’s about showing your math.”

In a phone interview, Lin said that industry representatives often react to his talks with astonishment, as they realize driverless cars require ethical considerations.

Still, he said that it’s early days for driverless cars–we’re a long way from having computers that can read a situation like a human can–so manufacturers don’t yet have to worry too deeply about solving ethical scenarios. “We’re not quite there yet where we can collect a lot of the information that goes into some of these ethical dilemmas,” Lin said.

Perhaps that explains why auto makers aren’t eager to have the discussion in public at the moment. BMW, Ford and Audi–who are each working on automated driving features in their cars–declined to comment for this story. Google also wouldn’t comment on the record, even as it prepares to test fully autonomous cars with no steering wheels. And the auto makers who did comment are focused on the idea that the first driverless cars won’t take ethics into account at all.

“The cars are designed to minimize the overall risk for a traffic accident,” Volvo spokeswoman Malin Persson said in an e-mail. “If the situation is unsure, the car is made to come to a safe stop.” (Volvo, by the way, says it wants to eliminate serious injuries or deaths in its cars by 2020, but research has shown that even driverless cars will inevitably crash.)

John Capp, GM’s director of electrical and control systems research, said in an interview that getting to the point where a driverless car needs to account for ethics will be a gradual, step-by-step process. (GM plans to offer a “Super Cruise” feature for highway driving by 2018, but it’ll still require the driver to stay alert and take the wheel in emergencies.)

“It’s going to be a while before cars have the capability to completely replace a driver, and we have no intention of promising that to a driver until the technology is capable of doing it,” Capp said.

Capp has a point, in that even Google’s recently-announced city-dwelling cars have only a rudimentary ability to detect what’s around them. They can’t, for instance, distinguish an elderly person from a child, or figure out how many people are in another vehicle. But as Lin points out, it’s likely that these cars will gain more advanced sensors over time, improving their ability to make decisions on the driver’s behalf.

Once that happens, the actual programming should be easy. Stanford’s CARS group, for instance, has already developed tools so that auto makers can code morality into their cars. It’s one part of a larger framework that CARS is offering to auto makers, covering all aspects of driverless car software.

“These are mathematical problems that we can describe and solve,” Chris Gerdes, a Stanford engineering professor and the program director at CARS, said in an interview. “And so it’s really up to manufacturers, then, if they are interested in adopting some of these ideas, in whole or in part.”

So far, Stanford’s partners–including Audi, Volkswagen, Ford and Nissan–have been more interested in other aspects of the software, Gerdes said. But that’s starting to change now, as Gerdes and Lin have been raising awareness about ethics.

Gerdes noted that the framework doesn’t actually define what’s morally right and wrong. In other words, the dirty work of answering centuries-old philosophical debates would still have to be done by auto makers. “The question of what ethical framework is right is something that we don’t really have an answer for,” he said. “That’s where I think the discussion needs to take place.”

Noah Goodall, a researcher at the Virginia Center for Transportation Innovation and Research, has started thinking about how cars might actually distinguish right from wrong. In a paper due to be published this year, Goodall proposes a series of steps for programming robotic cars, designed to get more complex as technology advances.

In the first phase, driverless cars would simply try to minimize overall damage, guided by some basic principles. Cars may, for instance, prioritize multiple injuries over a single death–perhaps answering the anecdote at the top of this story–and property damage over human harm. If a car faces a choice between inflicting two similar injuries, it may be able to take inspiration from the medical field, which, for instance, assigns allocation scores to organ transplant recipients.

But Goodall said in an interview that these rules probably won’t cover every circumstance. That’s why he’s proposed a second phase, in which driverless cars learn ethics through simulations of crashes and near-crashes. “Humans would score potential actions and results as more or less ethical, and would be allowed to score outcomes without the time constraint of an actual crash,” Goodall writes in his paper.

In the final phase, Goodall expects that computers would be able to explain their decision-making back to us with natural language, so we can tweak their thinking accordingly. It’d be a lot like teaching morality to a child as it grows into an adult.

Even with enough supporting research, it’s unclear who would be responsible for coming up with ethical rules. Auto makers could devise their own standards, or pass the buck onto the insurance industry or lawmakers. In any case, experts agree that the industry will eventually have to conform to standards for how vehicles behave.

“Is it possible that there will be some mandatory code that makes certain decisions uniform or consistent across vehicle types? I would say that’s very likely,” said Robert Hartwig, President and Chief Economist for the Insurance Information Institute.

Hartwig believes public policy makers will ultimately be the ones to require ethical standards. He noted that the aviation industry already relies on similar standards for things like crash avoidance, as defined by international regulations.

“Will there be tussles in terms of what auto makers want to see, what software manufacturers want to see, maybe even what drivers want to see? Possibly, yes,” Hartwig said. “This is not going to be a smooth process, but … in the end, the benefit is going to be clear: fewer accidents, fewer injuries, fewer deaths on the road.”

It’s possible that some of these ethical concerns are overblown, and that as long as the net number of lives saved goes up significantly, most people won’t care about a few fringe disasters. The risk, Lin said, is that just a handful of unfortunate cases could equal major payouts by auto makers in liability lawsuits. In turn, these could become setbacks for further developments.

And on a broader level, driverless cars will be the first instance of robots navigating through society on a large scale. How we end up perceiving them could have a huge impact on whether robots become a bigger part of our lives.

“These are going to be driving next to your family and through your streets,” Lin said. “This industry is really going to set the tone for all of social robotics, so they really need to get it right.”

TIME Innovation

Ready or Not, Driverless Cars Are Coming

There may be an autobot in your driveway sooner than you think

Predictions about a future in which cars that will fly, float or drive themselves have been staples of everything from science fiction to pop culture to corporate PR for decades. But now it looks like driverless cars, at least, may finally be hitting the road in short order.

Google announced as early as 2010 that it logged more than 140,000 miles in a self-driving car as part of a secret project. “While this project is very much in the experimental stage, it provides a glimpse of what transportation might look like in the future thanks to advanced computer science,” said Sebastian Thrun, a Google Fellow working on the company’s self-driving cars. “And that future is very exciting.”

Since then, Google and auto manufacturers have made great strides in refining and testing driverless technology by integrating semi-autonomous features into cars already on the market and building legal and public acceptance of the concept. But as the technology develops, questions have been raised about what it would mean if autonomous vehicles start hitting the roads in larger numbers. How do “robot cars” determine the best ways to react to an impending collision? How will human drivers and robots interact when they have to share the road? It won’t be long until we begin finding answers to these questions and others.

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