How Will We Know When Self-Driving Cars Are Safe? When They Can Handle the World’s Worst Drivers

In this world, no one is obeying the law, or lane markings, and everyone, from distracted drivers to jaywalking pedestrians, is forcing you to make split-second, life-or-death decisions—on purpose.

Subjecting autonomous vehicles to such a world, say engineers, is precisely how manufacturers and regulators will know that they are ready to be handed responsibility for our very lives.

To understand why, it helps to know a little about how the artificial-intelligence algorithms at the heart of self-driving systems are trained to handle tricky situations. Across almost every manufacturer of such systems, much of this training happens in simulation. That is a far safer and cheaper option than gathering data in the real world from actual vehicles, says Henry Liu, a professor of engineering at the University of Michigan and director of Mcity, a facility for testing autonomous vehicles.