Elon Musk says that he thinks it will be safe to fall asleep behind the wheel of a self-driving Tesla by the end of 2020. Picture: SUPPLIED
Elon Musk says that he thinks it will be safe to fall asleep behind the wheel of a self-driving Tesla by the end of 2020. Picture: SUPPLIED

In the last few years car companies globally have been proudly declaring that they are close to putting autonomous vehicles on the roads.

Then everyone realised it’s not as simple as just producing a car that can drive itself. Headline-grabbing incidents involving Tesla and Uber didn’t help, making everyone aware that there are risks. There is also the big question of who is responsible when it does go wrong.

The Association of British Insurers (ABI) stated last week that drivers of fully automated vehicles should not be held liable for accidents involving their cars while the technology is in charge.

Laurenz Gerger, policy adviser for motor insurance at the ABI, says: “There will come a point when the drivers of today are effectively just passengers of a vehicle driving itself, and at that stage we want motorists to be reassured they can’t be held liable for an error made by a vehicle or a piece of on-board technology.”

He said standards being set internationally “need to enforce strict requirements to ensure vehicles aren’t rushed on to the roads under the badge of autonomous when in fact they may still need human intervention at short notice”.

For this reason there are calls to further clarify what level of technology needs to be in a vehicle for it to be classified as autonomous.

According to vehicle safety company Thatcham Research, a vehicle should not be classified as fully autonomous if a human might need to intervene, for example to try avoiding a collision.

The company says: “Until a vehicle can handle emergency scenarios without driver intervention they can only be considered to offer advanced driver assistance. In these vehicles, drivers do remain fully responsible for the car and must be ready to take back control at any moment.”

That could certainly force some marketing departments to rethink the message they want to get across. And not just marketing people either. Tesla boss Elon Musk said during a podcast interview with Ark Invest last week: “My guess as to when we would think it is safe for somebody to essentially fall asleep and wake up at their destination? Probably towards the end of next year [2020].

“I think we will be feature complete, full self-driving, this year — meaning the car will be able to find you in a parking lot, pick you up, and take you all the way to your destination without an intervention.”

Other companies, even those classified as being disruptive, are being more cautious. While we have yet to see the first car to come from Apple, we do know the company has a large team working on what many are referring to as the “iCar”. There is much anticipation around it, with many  expecting Apple to make as big an impact in the car market as it has in the cellphone market, but Apple is not rushing into things.

It has just released a document, "Our Approach to Automated Driving System Safety", and supplied it to regulators in the US who are looking for those involved in the technology to focus more on perfecting the systems and their integration with other road users and infrastructure.

Apple says it is taking a cautious step-by-step approach to automated driving. Picture: SUPPLIED .
Apple says it is taking a cautious step-by-step approach to automated driving. Picture: SUPPLIED .

“We are investing heavily in the study of machine learning and automation, and we are excited about the potential of automated systems in many areas, including transportation,” says Apple. “In particular, we believe that automated driving systems (ADS) have the promise to greatly enhance the human experience in three key areas: improving road safety, increasing mobility, and realising broader societal benefits.”

The document outlines how Apple is taking a slower and more meticulous approach to automated driving, even possibly hitting out at rivals such as Tesla who have been accused of rushing technology that is not ready to the market.

Apple says the main components of its system are sense, plan and act. However it acknowledges that while it is still in a test phase, the systems can still hand over control to a safety driver if needed.

The document outlines how Apple takes a cautious approach by running simulations, testing on closed roads and proving grounds and only testing on public roads when all other criteria have been met. It even explains its strict rules on the hiring and daily activities of safety drivers.

It is easy to get excited about ill-informed headlines surrounding autonomous cars, but it is imperative that carmakers and legislators take care to ensure the technology is ready.

If governments will place responsibility at the door of the car companies if an autonomous car crashes, particularly in countries such as the US where the financial implications could be huge, we can expect the fully autonomous car to think twice about whether it’s ready to take to the road.