Self-Driving Commentary: Out the Door with Level Four

This post belongs to a series I’m calling Self-Driving Commentary, in which I spout and ramble on whatever is rattling around in my head pertaining to self-driving cars. Enjoy!

This morning I was rear-ended. It wasn’t awful, but definitely more than a tap. My bumper is scratched but not dented, my car makes some new noises at highway speeds, and my back is sore. The other driver didn’t bother to follow me as I pulled over and I didn’t get a license plate. I can only assume they didn’t have insurance, and were probably texting or something. The feeling is nauseating and I couldn’t help but think to myself, “this kind of crap won’t happen anymore once the cars drive themselves!”

You don’t need me to tell you that drivers obviously don’t have the mental bandwidth available to consistently devote a necessary portion of their attention to the road in front of them. And because driver attention is (even somewhat) necessary for Level 4 (and crucial to Levels 2 and 3) of NHTSA’s definition of the levels for autonomy, I believe companies developing autonomous cars should reject any lower level as a goal or a waypoint on the journey toward full (Level 5) autonomy.

Now, say what you will about the NHTSA guidelines. The guys at Autonocast are pretty vocal opponents of the concept of autonomy levels, particularly of placing them on a single spectrum when there are such fundamental, apples-to-oranges differences between driver assistance features like anti-lock brakes and power steering and full, no-steering-wheel-and-no-pedals autonomy. My homie Mitch Turck has his own ideas for defining autonomy. I would agree that the guidelines are problematic. They’re something, though. And something is always better than nothing, right?

Well, regardless of your feelings about the NHTSA levels, I would argue that any system that allows the driver to remove themself from control of the vehicle with the tacit agreement that they will be ready to retake control, whether it’s due to a failure of the autonomous system and there’s little or no notice to the driver or whether the driver is given ample notice as the car approaches unfamiliar and unnavigable territory, should be rejected or, at the very least, only meant for testing or a proof of concept. First of all, you’re back to having a lousy meat sack, now with that much less driving practice, back in control. There’s also those few (or not so few) seconds it takes for the driver to reorient themself before taking back control, not to mention how mentally exhausting, perhaps more than being in full control, putting oneself at the ready to resume control can be.

Tesla famously began outfitting their cars with the hardware “necessary for full autonomy”. I think it might be a bit of a gamble since they can’t really know if they’ll be able to implement full autonomy with a cameras-and-radar-only hardware setup (sure, humans get by with just our eyes, but… humans) but at least it’s not as much of a gamble, financially speaking, as outfitting all of their production vehicles with LiDAR. They’ll be collecting all of that sweet, sweet data in the meantime. I’m sure that they’ll start releasing incremental autonomy as the software matures, but I don’t see why autonomous systems can’t be tested while the human is in full control and only allowed to take control once full, Level 5 autonomy has been realized. Once we get those filthy human hands off the wheel, let’s keep them off.

After my hit and run I considered calling the cops, but decided it was probably more trouble that it would be worth. Without any substantiating evidence other than the make, model, and color of the car, I seriously doubt the police would be of any help. And even if they did manage to find the person, I don’t know what purpose it would serve other than to spread misery to someone who, in all likelihood, is already having a bad day. I’ll just consider myself lucky that it wasn’t worse, that I have health insurance, that I’ve been able to drive my VW for 15 years and 160,000 miles and can afford to buy a new car if I need to. Vengeance is overrated. It was just a mistake, and I won’t let it ruin my day. I will, however, continue my mission to rid the world of human drivers, dammit!