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Insights into Editorial: Autonomous driving and its shades of grey

Insights into Editorial: Autonomous driving and its shades of grey

18 July 2016

Carmakers and tech companies are in a race to put autonomous vehicles on the road. However, recent accidents of few cars operating on autopilot mode expanded debate on the subject of readiness and safety of autonomous driving.

What is autonomous driving?

The U.S. Department of Transportation has defined five levels of autonomous driving capability. They range from Level 0, represented by conventional autos of today, to Level 5 where future cars, like the Google Pod-Car, will have no opportunity for driver involvement.


  • Capability of most cars today having autopilot mode lie somewhere between Level 2 and Level 3, which means these cars are capable of some degree of autonomous driving but have many limitations. Such vehicles can confront many traffic situations, where the system’s capabilities will be overwhelmed.
  • Autopilot systems seek to offer the benefits of lower driving stress, which implies allowing the driver to be lulled into a sense of relaxation, only to be suddenly alerted to a situation that the autonomous system cannot manage.

Human involvement:

The use of an Autopilot function requires constant monitoring of the environment by the driver, who must remain ready to intervene and override the system when necessary. Human factors specialists will caution that such ambiguity is difficult to manage when one deals with a large population of drivers.

Role of automakers:

Automakers need to think twice before they allow customers to participate in “beta-testing” such safety-critical systems on public roads, even after suitable disclaimers.

Regulatory oversight:

Unlike aviation, where future technologies are subjected to rigorous evaluation prior to certification, regulations in autos often lag technological advances. In this era of explosive growth in electronics, connectivity and machine intelligence, automotive regulators have struggled to keep up. Regulations need to strike a balance between encouraging innovation and protecting customers from “prototypes” that represent work in progress.

While positions on where and how fully autonomous cars may be used or tested are taken by many western countries, they have been unable to address use and deployment of partial autonomous capability including parking assist, autonomous valet and autonomous lane tracking. This area needs urgent attention.


Many industry experts believe that deployment of autonomy will be paced by evolving a legal understanding of liability and accountability. We can conceive of situations where accountability may be apportioned to the automaker, driver, owner, car-share user and even a third party who may cause an accident.

When the car is in autonomous mode, it will require considerable amount of data and understanding of software to apportion liability. A brand new domain of the ethics of decisions made while in autonomous mode remains poorly studied.

What needs to be done now?

Regulators must intervene. The technology is already being deployed, and it’s time to set standards for when an autonomous-driving feature has been tested enough and is considered safe enough for widespread use. Public roads shouldn’t be uncontrolled laboratories for vehicle safety experiments.

  • But this is no easy job. There is immense pressure from driverless-car supporters and safety advocates to get more autonomous technology on the road as soon as possible because, at the end of the day, self-driving cars will probably be much safer than cars driven by erratic, distracted humans.
  • Transportation safety regulators, as well as manufacturers, have to figure out how to do more real-world, independently verified stress-testing to hone the technology without people dying in the process.

Way ahead:

Drivers require a deeper and more subtle understanding of what each system can manage and where driver involvement is necessary. Over time, system capabilities will expand, incorporating technologies like Vehicle-to-Vehicle communication and improving safety margins.

  • Automakers must be concerned about how system capabilities are communicated to customers. The subtle distinctions between “autonomous driving” and” driver assist functions” are important and convey very different sets of expectations to customers.
  • In a short period of time, many technologies have gone from being dismissed as “science fiction” to being the latest “must-have feature.” The rapidity of these transformations, accelerated by a world of hyperbole and advertisement, often allows insufficient time for technology maturation.
  • For life-critical systems, as opposed to shopping apps on a mobile device, it cannot be sufficient to merely tell the customer to download the latest upgrade.
  • Complex situations cannot be managed with binary views on whether a technology is right or not. Evolution of technologies and human assimilation of new capabilities occur incrementally, leaving us to deal with periods of ambiguity and many shades of grey.


The topic involves a complex interplay of technology evolution, human behaviour and a driver’s ability to manage ambiguities. Contrary to some chatter that has erupted, there can be no simple binary conclusions. We need to be prepared to deal with many shades of grey.