back to article What will laws on self-driving cars look like? Think black boxes and 'minimum attention'

The recent high-profile crash of a Tesla driving in Autopilot mode has sparked a rush to develop new laws for self-driving cars. Just as there is a race on in the engineering departments of many large car companies to develop autonomous car technology, so legislators are working fast to develop the rules to cover it. The …

  1. G R Goslin

    Pointless and expensive technology

    Thgere are many things which would be improved with automatic control. Even in transportation. Planes can fly themselves, and usually do, Ships ditto. Trains ditto. But cars and commercial vehicles. No. With the former the pilot/driver, or whatever has plenty of time, generally, to take in the situation, before taking action. Not so, on the road. If the cars autopilot hands over control, it's likely to be mere seconds before disaster strikes. In the classic case where someone steps off the kerb as a car approaches, the drivers reaction time is likely to be more than a second. And the driver is supposed to be concentrating on the task of driving. If he, or she is not concentrating, the accident will be long over before the driver gets his/her thought into gear. The other thing, of course is cost. Frankly I don't think even the Government could conceive such a waste of money and resources as automatic control. The insurance companies, of course will have a field day. An excuse to put up premiums, and at the same time, a host of reasons why they can hive off the costs to other organisations. And, of course, nice fat spin-offs to the legal profession.

    1. Sorry that handle is already taken. Silver badge

      Re: Pointless and expensive technology

      It's not much of an autonomous system if it waits until a collision is imminent before throwing its metaphorical hands in the air and deferring to the driver!

      The point of autonomous vehicles is that they should react far more quickly and appropriately than humans to adverse events on the road, thus reducing the number and severity of crashes. Why would this result in insurance companies increasing premiums?

      As for cost, the necessary hardware is commodity tech and the software development costs will be amortised over millions of units.

      1. Smooth Newt Silver badge
        Thumb Down

        Re: Pointless and expensive technology

        Why would this result in insurance companies increasing premiums?

        A system which encourages people to sit back and relax, and then expects them to be able to react at half a second's notice is simply absurd. It's hard enough now to get people to concentrate on driving when they actually control the car - e.g. how many mobile phone users do you see on a typical day?

        Anyway, until a few days ago we were being sold the technology on the basis that "the car itself takes over allowing the commuter to read, sleep or prepare for the working day ahead".

      2. Nolveys

        Re: Pointless and expensive technology

        The point of autonomous vehicles is that they should react far more quickly and appropriately than humans

        "Hey, why is the car phoning the coroner? OH SHI-"

    2. Adam 1

      Re: Pointless and expensive technology

      If it hands over control, it would more likely be in the situation where it detected a fault with one of its sensors, or mutually exclusive measurements between say the radar and camera data.

      It's got a long way to go, but the benefits are pretty obvious to me. A mesh network that allows following cars to know the very moment your emergency braking manoeuvre occurs so they can avoid you is a pretty big one. Think a broadcast to the other cars of "this is my planned way of avoiding obstacle"

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Pointless and expensive technology

        Or it could conveniently hand over control to human operator at the last second in order to exonerate the manufacturer of faulty software. The human driver did it, humans are unreliable, our software is flawless etc. You can count on it.

        Anyway our Canadian winter will protect us from self-driving vehicles at least four months of the year.

        1. YetAnotherLocksmith

          Re: Pointless and expensive technology

          Sadly AC has it right.

          Being forced by your car to sit attentively so it will work is going to be the newest circle of hell.

          Too tired to drive? Bad luck. Disabled & can't drive? Bad luck. Not sitting & passing the twice per second "paying attention" eye tracking check? Bad luck. No "auto" driving for you!

          Even better, take control yourself, touch 31mph, get automatic tickets from the black box.

          It really is going to be the most horrendous of futures.

          And that's before you factor in the fact that *every single vehicle you see* could be a reprogrammed kill-bot, actively looking for your number plate in order to crash/ram/crush.

          1. Dr Dan Holdsworth

            Re: Pointless and expensive technology

            Asking a human to sit attentively and watch a machine drive is probably the most idiotic notion ever thought up by a lawyer ever; it displays a profound lack of insight into how human attention works, and how computer control systems work (or should work). The only way the concept could be made worse is to force the human to walk in front of the car with a red flag.

            It also completely misses out on some of the easy wins for autonomous driving systems: autonomous motorway driving. It has been found that if cars on a motorway can driver very close together, on the order of about a metre separation, then fuel use for all but the front vehicle drops dramatically. This separation is controllable for a MESH communicating computer talking to all other cars, but is impossible for a human.

            So, what happens if the computer gets confused and hands over control in such a situation? Easy, a big pile-up. Either the car rear-ends the one in front, or the human jams on the brakes and gets rear-ended himself. Cue a lawyer pointing out the utter impossibility of a person being able to function, and the law getting thrown out by a court.

            The way for a computer-controlled car to fail safe is simple: if it cannot safely control the car, it must slow down and come to a full stop, and only then when stationary may it hand over control. Nothing else is safe or sensible.

      2. Anonymous Blowhard

        Re: Pointless and expensive technology

        "If it hands over control, it would more likely be in the situation where it detected a fault with one of its sensors, or mutually exclusive measurements between say the radar and camera data."

        It should also "hand over control" when stationary rather than when moving; the handover should not be in response to an emergency situation, this is much more likely to result in a collision.

        The requirement that the passenger should always be ready to become the driver at a moment's notice is ridiculous; their attention is not going to be on the situation and forcing them to take control whilst moving will be more dangerous, in most cases**, than just stopping the vehicle.

        ** Yes, there are always "edge cases" where stopping may be more dangerous, the same as the rare time when wearing a seat belt gets a person killed.

      3. Fr. Ted Crilly

        Re: Pointless and expensive technology

        Well yes you're absolutely spot on there.

        What would Chad C Mulligan have to say about it?

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Pointless and expensive technology

      "If the cars autopilot hands over control, it's likely to be mere seconds before disaster strikes"

      That's obviously not true. An automatic car would just perform an emergency stop - the main objective of the software will always be to ensure that it can come to a complete stop in the space available. If it can't do that, nor can the driver.

      Cars will need to hand over control based on areas where the road layout is unsuitable - maybe around schools and other busy areas which would presumably be included on the maps so the car can usually drive around. Also changes in weather conditions may result in the software being unable to safely operate automatically.

    4. Nigel 11

      Re: Pointless and expensive technology

      Isn't the obvious reason for a handover a transition from an automation-friendly main road network to a minor road?

      I'm quite prepared to suggest that on a motorway or dual carriageway with slip-roads, a robot can already do a better job of driving safely than an average human. Now add in the car communicating with the car in front and with the warning signs. Also add non-visual lane marking technology that works even when the road is wet and dazzly. I think that with such a near-future highway it's perfectly sensible to identify a destination, hand control to the car, and expect it to give you a minutes-long long countdown to when it will be leaving the robot-compatible highway network and requiring you to assume responsibility (potentially hours later).

      Where the idea of a fully automatic car is hubristic, is on rural or urban minor roads with more unpredictable hazards. Here, a human driver and a robot working as a team would be best. Let the human do the driving, so as to remain alert. The robot may still be better at slamming on the brakes in an emergency situation such as a vehicle emerging from the side without giving way -- it's faster -- and it can alert the cars behind far faster than the human visual system can -- but it may completely fail to identify some other potential hazards as hazardous, and require a human override for non-hazards such as small fallen branches or cardboard boxes on the road (Note: I'm assuming a competent human. Many aren't!)

      Once the car is on auto, it cannot be acceptable for the manufacturer to escape liability by giving a human driver mere seconds to assume responsibility. We are no good at doing that! The car must always be capable of coming to a safe automatic stop if the driver has not confirmed that he is back in charge (ideally in an escape lane to deal with human drivers who have fallen deeply asleep, without blocking a motorway exit for everyone else! )

    5. PassiveSmoking

      Re: Pointless and expensive technology

      I've got eyesight so bad I'm forbidden from ever holding a driver's license.

      From my perspective, this tech would only be pointless if it always required a qualified driver sat in front of it for liability purposes. If it can be made to work with no human intervention at all then for me it becomes a shot at freedom.

  2. Chris G Silver badge

    Road Net

    The ultimate requirement for 'Autonomous' cars will be Central Control, so they won't really be autonomous in the true sense just less realtime input from the driver/passenger during the journey.

    Certainly in cities it would make far more sense to log a journey in advance with a central control and then sit in your car while it communicates with the city traffic mainframe to get you where you are going.

    At minimum even if cars are going to remain private and personal they will become more and more dependant on the Internet of Traffic in order to carry out a journey as autonomy becomes the norm, think at the moment some 7.000.000 car journeys a day in London, with a connected car it makes better sense to manage traffic centrally.

    Just not with me in it!

    1. Marketing Hack Silver badge
      Big Brother

      Re: Road Net

      Nice future you envision there. A central control that always knows where you are and where you are going, and could conceivably withdraw your permission to be on the road mid-trip. That way you can easily be routed to the nearest Thought Police station to start your 're-education and self-criticism session.

      But hey, as long as it's for your own good...

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Road Net

        ...or rerouted to a dodgy warehouse to be relieved of your goodies by someone who's cracked the system.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Road Net

        @Marketing Hack "Nice future you envision there."

        Already here. The UK police have 2 years of everyones car journey's logged to their DB using all those small cameras on your local roads.

    2. Flocke Kroes Silver badge

      Re: Road Net

      For some reason, journeys start taking longer. Next, central control offers a monthly fee for priority routing. Priority routed vehicles slow everyone else's journeys so they have to buy priority routing too. For an extra fee, super priority routing becomes available for a super monthly fee.

      1. Adam 1

        Re: Road Net

        I signed up for the new "unlimited" priority routing package. It entitles me to up to 6 priority trips of no more than 30Km per trip every calendar month.

        1. Chris G Silver badge

          Re: Road Net

          Nice to see everyone has the same jaundiced view of that particular possible future.

          Unfortunately, governments are deciding more and more what is for our own good,

          They can have control of my steering wheel when they pry it from my cold dead hands (probably after being hit by an errant autonomous car).

          1. allthecoolshortnamesweretaken

            Re: Road Net

            "Nice to see everyone has the same jaundiced view of that particular possible future."

            I'd say realistic, but let's not squabble over semantics.

      2. E2

        Re: Road Net

        That already has a name. MaaS.

      3. Terry Cloth

        The Internet of Traffic

        So you're saying we need traffic neutrality?

  3. 404

    'Black box' already exists AFAIK

    My 2003 Dodge Ram pickup had one - when it was wrecked, insurance company, Chrysler, various investigators, etc, could tell me what speed, when the brakes were applied after the rear impact, then why the airbags didn't deploy upon the frontal impact (75' ravine/tree(s))... Oblique angle on impact didn't register on sensors, thus driver eating steering wheel and windshield... But I digress...

    Anyway, the black box is already covered.

    1. Alan Brown Silver badge

      Re: 'Black box' already exists AFAIK

      "My 2003 Dodge Ram pickup had one"

      If you car has airbags, it has a black box.

      This proposed legislation is counterproductive. Handing control back when things are already going pearshaped is the worst thing which can be done.

      As for the Tesla case:

      1: It was a cruise control, not an automated vehicle - and yes, it needs to scan for higher obstacles.

      2: There are unresolved issues

      -missing dashcam (the driver recorded all his trips, why would he have not been recording this one?)

      -the truck driver's claims of hearing a dvd player are impossible over a running truck engine

      -there's no indication of whether a human could have avoided the incident (clotheslining crashes are depressingly common in the USA, which leads to....)

      3: It was caused by a truck driver turning across oncoming at-speed traffic which had right of way in any case - which in any sane jurisdiction should lead to charges being filed even if noone got hurt.

      Automated vehicles don't need to drive perfectly. They just need to drive consistently and safely at a level better than the average human driver - which is a spectacularly low bar.

      Almost all crashes on the road (NOT accidents) are the result of at least 2 sets of serious driving errors. Our road rules are setup such that you can drive quite badly and generally "get away with it" if others are paying attention and road designs take emotional, impatient monkeys into account most of the time.

  4. Gomez Adams

    "A key part of that system, according to the draft German law, will be determining when an automated system requested that the driver take over, putting the onus on companies to develop software that is suitably cautious, and on human drivers to maintain vigilance while driving"

    Aka at the dawn of motoring as "The man walking in front with a red flag" law.

    1. Chairo

      walking in front with a red flag

      Yes, and like the red flag it destroys the key advantage of the new system. To give mobility to someone who has no driving license.

      The question is, if politicians can understand the difference between fully autonomous driving and autopilot systems as they are implemented in current vehicles.

      1. 404

        Re: walking in front with a red flag

        Aren't you asking quite a bit from people who wipe hard drives with a cloth?

        -the one with ssd(s) in the pockets...

        1. YetAnotherLocksmith

          Re: walking in front with a red flag

          Indeed. See my post above for my thoughts on how this will be a new circle of hell.

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    "The operator will be responsible for monitoring the safe operation of the vehicle at all times, and must be capable of taking over immediate control in the event of an autonomous technology failure or other emergency."

    Well that's no bloody good. There was that study that said drivers took up to 17 seconds to regain control; by which time you're upside down on fire in a tree and still with 10 seconds to go before the slow ones step up to the controls. "In the event of an autonomous technology failure or other emergency", I want mine to park itself somewhere safely and call out a tow truck, a taxi and probably a pizza delivery. Also, this proposed law would prohibit autonomous cars taking you to the pub and back which is the entire point of the whole field of technology. Sort it out Germany.

    1. Anonymous Blowhard

      "There was that study that said drivers took up to 17 seconds to regain control"

      I think this may have been Google's experience; they stopped using conventional cars with extra equipment and moved to a box with a stop button. Their experience, and they have the most in this field, is that if there is a problem then the vehicle will just stop; trying to hand over control usually caused more problems than it solved. The stop button is only there in case the passenger wants the vehicle to stop immediately (maybe if they need to get out and puke?).

      1. Neil Barnes Silver badge

        I suspect there is something to be said

        given the requirement for an alert driver, for a control system which steps in if and only if the driver is driving like an utter dickhead...

        I'm not at all sure how this might be phased in; it seems that you need either full control or pretty much none. A cruise control saves my ankle, but I still need to steer and brake, and as a result to be alert and aware of what's going on around me. When it does, say, steering and lane control and emergency action and even something as simple as adaptive cruise control, what is left to keep me alert? Electric shocks through the seat?

        For a long distance journey where you don't want to drive, take a train or a plane, or even an airship. For the two minute jaunt to the shops, why would you even *want* this sort of automation?

        1. Alan Brown Silver badge

          Re: I suspect there is something to be said

          " A cruise control saves my ankle, but I still need to steer and brake"

          My cruise control takes away the need to brake manually - in a 15 year old car design. It also gives a bunch of "headsup" beeps if it thinks there is trouble coming in from the sides or someone pulls out in front at the last instant ont he motorway, before banging on the anchors if needed.

          It's more cautious than this particular monkey when it comes to the latter type of event, to the point where braking is fairly uncomfortable if you let it grab the following distance it really wants.

        2. Alan Brown Silver badge

          Re: I suspect there is something to be said

          "For the two minute jaunt to the shops,"

          Why the fuck are you taking a car when you could walk?

          1. Pedigree-Pete

   the USA.

            Last time I was in the US of A I took a Sunday stroll and had to wander out each evening to get food as the hotel had no restaurant. Also regular visits to the nearest gas station as they had a fine stock of Speckled Hen, Old Peculiar, 6X etc.

            The local law enforcement turned up on the Thursday before my departure back to Blighty. I did enquire of the receptionist if all was well.

            It only dawned on me half way across the Atlantic that the receptionists response of "the police had reports of a lurker" that there's a good chance it may have been me. I don't recall seeing many residents walking anywhere only the odd jogger and 1 or 2 cyclinsts IN A WHOLE WEEK. PP

        3. Nigel 11

          Re: I suspect there is something to be said

          For a long distance journey where you don't want to drive, take a train or a plane,

          That's what I thought a few years ago when I wanted to get from Hatfield to Lincoln and back. Nice easy rail journey, wouldn't even have to change trains across London ....

          After studying the timetables, I worked out that the fastest train journey would take longer than driving, that the service was infrequent and irregular and that there was no way to get back in the late evening, and that the cost would exceed the cost of running the car ... for a single person, and there were two people travelling.

          Aaagh! They do things better in Switzerland.

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    autonomous systems are fine

    what about the absolute shit roads we drive on?

    1. phuzz Silver badge

      Re: autonomous systems are fine

      Move to a country that spends some money on infrastructure. For example, Germany,where this legislation is being discussed.

  7. E2

    drivers ... able to immediately take control of the wheel

    What does "immediately" mean ? The number I've heard mentioned is within 4 seconds. Which is quite short to asess all of the external conditions from scratch. So, sort of ebgs the question as to why have the AV ?

    ...ensure that in the inevitable future car crashes that will take place with these vehicles, it can be shown, clearly and legally, not to have been the fault of the software....

    An invalid presumption that it will never be the fault of the sofware ( or, more accurately, the system )

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    vorsprung durch Technik

    seems to me that the Tesla accident has overshadowed these remarkable achievements by Audi - one big difference is that Tesla doesn't use LIDAR ...

    and Ford is working on all-weather systems too ...

    I think there's every reason to be optimistic ... I hope so, as I've lost my (old-style, paper) English driving licence ...

  9. Joe Harrison

    Not going to work because based on logic

    Automated vehicle designers are aiming for a solution which will reduce driving costs, reduce journey times, improve safety, and all those other good and logical things. They assume that people with cars share their objectives.

    However as we know a fair proportion of today's drivers have other priorities and their cars fulfil completely different objectives such as sustaining their self-image, defining their place in the pecking order, or merely having fun driving like a knob. Everyone knows the cocky bloke who looks down on automatic transmission because "as an above-average driver I require full control of the car" and somehow can't see him not immediately disabling a complete automatic driving system.

    So I think the legislators have got it back to front - automatic driving will ultimately only work if all vehicles are automatic rather than leaving a few randomly unpredictable ones so they should really focus on not offering human opportunity to drive.

    1. Alan Brown Silver badge

      Re: Not going to work because based on logic

      " the legislators have got it back to front "

      The insurance companies won't though. Legislators will have a hard time arguing with actuaries, or forcing them to take on unacceptable risks.

      Expect insurance premiums for manual driving to skyrocket and a presumption that the monkey is at fault in any crash, as the robot(s) will have a nice video evidence collection that the meatsack will have to argue with.

  10. nijam

    I'd still like to know whether or not the self-driving systems will enjoy driving or not. If not, that will explain why they are going to make driving a miserable experience for other road users.

  11. Yugguy

    Requirements as to when a human user takes over?

    That would be when you are in a Johnny Cab, being chased by Richter.

  12. redbarnman

    Human Factors?

    Has any research been done on how quickly a driver who is reading or otherwise engaged firstly react to a warning, disengage from the book, assess the situation, then take the correct action? I reckon that will be several seconds and as 30mph = 14 metres a second that is quite away down the road. At 70mph I don't see humans being able to do anything in time unless they happen to be a part time F1 driver. Perhaps future driving tests will have a section on distraction reaction. If you pass you get a super-licence and can have an autonomous car. If you fail its back to the 2CV.

    1. Yugguy

      Re: Human Factors?

      Well exactly - what, you're sitting there reading a book when all of a sudden there's a bong and you suddenly have to decide wether to mow down the kid or drive off the cliff edge.

  13. allthecoolshortnamesweretaken

    Sounds like a lot of "Jesus, take the wheel!" situations waiting to happen. If I have to supervise and second-guess the AutoDriveTM, then what's the point of switching it on in the first place?

  14. allthecoolshortnamesweretaken

    Wait, I just had an idea to turn this into fun! Combine AutoDriveTM with augmented reality and turn every trip in a game of Mario cart!

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