Relegating Self-Driving Vehicles to Separate Roadways

On Friday, July 8 2016, the Wall Street Journal published an Op-Ed by a leading computer scientist, Jerry Kaplan, in which he predicts that in order to truly be successful integrating self-driving vehicles into society, we will need to adapt and construct separate roadways purposed solely for autonomous traffic.

Responding to the first known fatality in a self-driving car in May 2016, Kaplan cautions readers that “this was no ordinary accident” and that “the car performed exactly as designed . . . the (non)driver’s failure to take any corrective action could reasonably have been foreseen by [Tesla].” In other words, Kaplan argues that “it’s simply not practical to ask passengers in a self-driving vehicle to remain alert and engaged” –calling the fatal collision “an unwelcome yet widely anticipated milestone [that] may set back progress on what promises to be one of the most valuable technologies of the 21st century.” 

Likening the introduction of today’s early-stage autonomous vehicles to the “‘horseless carriages’ of the early 1900s,” Kaplan warns that automakers like Tesla have “pursued a flawed vision of the future, one in which tomorrow’s technology is simply layered on top of today’s.” Much like the early 1900s, Kaplan reminds readers that it the tangible benefits of self-driving technology won’t be realized until “substantial changes [are made] in our transportation infrastructure,” and that “the true power of the automobile was unleashed only after streets were paved, lanes marked, traffic lights installed, pedestrians confined to sidewalks and horse-drawn traffic curtailed.” Much in the same way, Kaplan argues that in order to harness the power of self-driving technologies we must first separate autonomous vehicles from human-piloted traffic on separate thoroughfares and equip every vehicle with a transponder for sending and receiving navigational information. 

According to Kaplan, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is expected to issue rules mandating the installation of transponders in all new American automobiles in the near futures. Equipped with this technology, Kaplan states that “vehicle-to-vehicle” (“V2V”) communication will be a reality, allowing automobiles to broadcast their speed, anticipated turns, and other relevant operating information to one another. According to the NHTSA, installing transponders to promote V2V communication could prevent as many as 500,000 crashes and 930 fatalities annually. While impressive in their life-saving potential, Kaplan cautions that transponders are currently only able to assist human drivers, but if paired with self-driving technology on separate roads, the reduction in accidents and fatalities could be much higher.

 Looking ahead, Kaplan predicts that many states could enact reactionary legislation stalling the development of self-driving vehicles as companies scramble to integrate “limited-functionality products with today’s streets and drivers” rendering the technology as “a mere novelty or convenience” until a comprehensive and dedicated infrastructure is implemented to support self-driving vehicles.

 As an interesting coda, in the following YouTube video Kaplan presents a case for the safety-centric ethical considerations that underscore his position that self-driving vehicles need to be segregated to their “own” throughways: Would You Buy a Car That's Programmed to Kill You? 

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