To Make Autonomous Vehicles Safe, We Have to Rethink “Autonomous” and “Safe”

Even Level 3 consumer vehicles remain merely an aspiration, with Audi positioning its 2019 A8 sedan to be the first to liberate the driver’s attention. “We might see some surprises in the next few years,” says Costa Samaras, assistant professor in civil and environmental engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, and some technologies in the future are closer than they appear, but, he says, “the public feels that these [Level 4–5 cars] are right here right now, when in reality they’re not that close.”

While manufacturers might downplay how far off these higher levels of autonomy really are, eliding these distinctions can leave policymakers and the public with an exaggerated impression of what’s about to hit the market. Worse, drivers overestimate the capabilities of existing vehicles, relying on Level 2 systems to dodge obstacles or even to let them drive while intoxicated.

When we talk about AV safety, then, it’s essential to specify just how autonomous the cars in question are. Some vehicles will only feature partial autonomy, in which case they shouldn’t have to pass a full driving test—but then, Samaras says, “companies [should] make it very explicit what the driver’s responsibilities [and] the vehicle’s capabilities are.”