That needs to be con­si­de­red befo­re we’re scram­bling to imple­ment laws for exi­sting technology

By Eamonn Brosnan
Rese­arch associate
Fron­tier Cen­tre for Public Policy

We haven’t reached the point whe­re dri­ver­less vehic­les ply our roadways. Howe­ver, as a recent inci­dent on an Alber­ta high­way demon­stra­tes, we might be edging closer.

How clo­se are auto­ma­kers to pro­du­cing such a vehic­le and, more impor­tan­tly, how clo­se are law­ma­kers to allo­wing an arti­fi­cial-intel­li­gen­ce-dri­ven vehic­le on city streets?

The indu­stry has a six-tier sca­le to defi­ne self-dri­ving auto­no­my in a vehicle:

Level 0: Your typi­cal car with nothing more than an onbo­ard navi­ga­tion sys­tem or old-sty­le cru­ise control.

Level 1: Inc­lu­des vehic­les that use a sin­gle com­pu­ter-con­trol­led dri­ving sys­tem, like adap­ti­ve cru­ise con­trol or lane centring.

Level 2: Par­tial dri­ving auto­ma­tion, con­ta­ining mul­ti­ple dri­ver-assist sys­tems, such as adap­ti­ve cru­ise con­trol or lane centring.

Level 3: Inc­lu­des the dri­ver-assist sys­tems from Level 2 and can make envi­ron­men­tal dri­ving deci­sions, like pas­sing a slow-moving vehic­le or detec­ting envi­ron­men­tal con­di­tions that the vehic­le could make deci­sions about.

Level 4: High dri­ving auto­ma­tion vehic­les that typi­cal­ly don’t requ­ire human inte­rac­tion or over­si­ght. They inc­lu­de the full suite of com­pu­ter-con­trol­led dri­ving sys­tems, as well as an advan­ced arti­fi­cial intel­li­gen­ce (AI) capa­ble of reac­ting to chan­ging road con­di­tions, traf­fic, pede­strians and a wide varie­ty of other variables.

Level 5: Full dri­ving auto­ma­tion vehic­les that don’t even have regu­lar human dri­ving controls.

In Alber­ta, the ‘dri­ver’ of a Tesla was pul­led over and char­ged with spe­eding and dan­ge­ro­us dri­ving. Both front seats were rec­li­ned and the dri­ver and pas­sen­ger were sound asleep.

Does Tesla actu­al­ly make a self-dri­ving vehicle?

Tho­ugh the com­pa­ny cer­ta­in­ly does build sys­tems abo­ve Level 0, they’re not capa­ble of tru­ly auto­no­mo­us dri­ving. Tesla’s auto­pi­lot sys­tem, as inc­lu­ded in the model invo­lved in this inci­dent, is con­si­de­red a Level 2. The mar­ke­ting name Auto­pi­lot is per­haps a bit ambi­tio­us, as such sys­tems requ­ire a human to be in the driver’s seat and awa­re and able to take con­trol of the vehic­le witho­ut notice.

The­se sys­tems can’t han­dle a vast array of hazards. Things like sud­den seve­re weather, dirt or a rock chip cove­ring a radar sen­sor or came­ra, low tra­ilers, lane deto­urs due to road con­struc­tion, lane mar­kings wearing out or cove­red, and even cor­ners with heavy traf­fic can con­fu­se the system.

Tesla, like other auto­ma­kers, has extra safe­ty featu­res to ensu­re dri­vers are awa­ke and dri­ving. If the vehic­le doesn’t rece­ive input from a dri­ver, it will auto­ma­ti­cal­ly slow down and then stop on the side of the road.

Howe­ver, as with any com­pu­ter tech­no­lo­gy, cle­ver people have devi­sed wor­ka­ro­unds or after-mar­ket appli­ca­tions to help dri­vers cir­cu­mvent the­se safe­gu­ards. In this case, it appe­ars the dri­ver cir­cu­mven­ted the safeguards.

Many auto­ma­kers offer Level 2 sys­tems but there’s only one Level 3 sys­tem on the mar­ket: the Audi A8. And any­thing below Level 4 still requ­ires an atten­ti­ve dri­ver who can take con­trol of the vehic­le. Seve­ral com­pa­nies are deve­lo­ping Level 4 sys­tems. Level 4 sys­tems can’t be used out­si­de very spe­ci­fic test regions in cer­ta­in cities.

Cana­da doesn’t have legi­sla­tion per­mit­ting dri­ver­less (Level 4 or 5) vehic­les on public roadways.

Ulti­ma­te­ly, tho­ugh, auto­ma­ted vehic­les will be main­stays on our roadways and why not?

AI-con­trol­led vehic­les will be safer and traf­fic will flow faster.

But serio­us legal con­si­de­ra­tions still need to be reso­lved and not just by the cor­po­ra­tions deve­lo­ping the­se sys­tems. Citi­zens sho­uld have input on how the­se vehic­les ope­ra­te. The insu­ran­ce indu­stry will also have con­cerns, altho­ugh insu­rers will no doubt be thril­led with tech­no­lo­gy that lowers acci­dent rates.

But questions like who’s respon­si­ble when an auto­ma­ted sys­tem has an acci­dent sho­uld be con­si­de­red now rather than when we’re scram­bling to imple­ment laws for exi­sting technology.

And regu­la­tions are needed rela­ted to testing the­se vehic­les and ensu­ring the­ir secu­ri­ty sys­tems pre­vent the ine­vi­ta­ble mali­cio­us hack attempts.

I’m hesi­tant to endor­se Level 5 auto­ma­ted vehic­les witho­ut an over­ri­de that disen­ga­ges all auto­ma­ted sys­tems so human con­trol can bring a vehic­le to a safe stop.

Until the laws chan­ge, remem­ber that you are tasked with con­trol­ling your vehic­le, regar­dless of its level of sophi­sti­ca­tion. It doesn’t mat­ter how auto­ma­ted the vehic­le might be, until the laws say dif­fe­ren­tly, the­re must always be a licen­sed, insu­red, sober and awa­ke dri­ver behind the whe­el, capa­ble of taking con­trol witho­ut any hesitation.

Eamonn Bro­snan is a rese­arch asso­cia­te with the Fron­tier Cen­tre for Public Policy.

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