The Ontological Status of the Driver – or why we need to change the law

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In the debate on autonomous cars, one document keeps popping up: The Vienna Convention for Road Traffic from 1968, which is ratified across Europe. Most debators point to article 8 in zeroing in on the legislative hinderance to deploying autonomous systems to our roads.

I am actually a big fan of article 8. In my opinion, the real problem lies in article 1, and here is why.

Article 8 basically states two things:

  1. The driver should have knowledge of the vehicle in question

  2. The driver should have control of the vehicle in question.

Both of these stipulations make a lot of sense. But when we take a closer look things get a little blurry.

What kind of knowledge do we actually have about our vehicles? We normally presuppose that taking a driver’s license involves some kind of theoretical knowledge about what an engine is, how how brakes and instruments work, etc. But in reality, our knowledge of the vehicle is often very limited. I know that if red lights appear on my dashboard I have to pull over and call a mechanic. The mechanic will run diagnostic program after which the computer tells him what the car perceives as a problem, and he can then relay the message to me. So in reality, knowledge of the vehicle is highly distributed, and thoroughly dependent on computer systems.

What kind of control do we have, then? In a technical sense, control is understood as mastery of energy. When running this means controlling energy from the engine to the wheels, and when stopping this means controlling energy from the wheels to the brakes. But in reality, again, those controls are highly distributed and computerized. In both going and stopping the flow of energy of is controlled by computers way beyond my detailed understanding and control.

Knowledge and control are shared by humans and computers. If we can accept this fact of reality, the “driver” is simply understood as a combination of human and systemic controls, article 8 stays intact, and we can all move on. But this is where article 1 enters.

Article 1 clearly states that a driver is a person and this is the real problem.

It means that a person – and ONLY a person – can perform in the role of a driver. This stipulation obviously has deep legal consequences, e.g., concerning liability. But from a practical point of view this position is untenable.

The reality is that even today the notion of a driver (of knowledge and in control) is a distributed entity where a person alone cannot be said to meet the requirements. Looking ahead, this also implies that even a system with far more knowledge than the average license seeker and with superior driving skills will not be able to obtain a license for the road. Why? Because only persons are eligible for such a license. To me that does not make sense.

Will someone PLEASE rewrite article 1 to reflect what we actually want on our roads?

We owe it to ourselves and to our children to build better and safer transportation systems, and right now that means: discontinue the obsolete legacy law in favor of real world solutions that ensure safety inside and outside of our cars.

 

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Tesla charger robot

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Finally! A solution to this conundrum: We have advanced infrastructure, we have advanced cars, yet we still have to manually refuel our cars :/ One of the silly leftovers from an age where people were supposed to serve machines.

Tesla have revealed a prototype of a robotic charger. It may not be the stable or final solution we need, but its definitely a step in the right direction.

 

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Selv-driving truck – Florida

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U.S. company Royal Truck & Equipment are almost ready to launch driver-less trucks on real roads. Testing is scheduled in Florida in 2015.

Besides remote and GPS navigation, the trucks are also equipped with “leader-follower” capabilities, which basically means that a truck can connect to a car in front of it and tag along.

Another important step in securing roads.

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Mcity test facility for driverless cars

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U of Michigan has inaugurated a test facility for unmanned vehicles, comprised of a variety  of road types and “real world” obstacles that autonomous cars will encounter.

Good idea.

But I would like to point out that such projects MUST be accompanied by real world tests. There are a number of things that you will NEVER learn from simulation, be it soft or hard.

PS.: The idea of populating a test space with robots  that you can run over seems less than appealing to me. But perhaps I’m biased…

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Volvo: 100 Autonomous Cars with “non-drivers” in 2017

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Volvo says that by 2017 they will have 100 autonomous cars on the streets of Gothenburg. All of these cars will have “non-drivers” om board – human controllers that can intervene in case of an emergency.

This is definitely a step in the right direction. Autonomous cars holds great promise with respect to traffic safety and environmental concerns. One could ask: Is this ambitious enough? Thinking about the Volvo accident  (below) the answer is most likely yes.

but perhaps others can rise to the challenge?

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Denmark 3rd most positive towards Autonomous Technology

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 Special Eurobarometer 427

In a recently published report, the European Commission has gauged attitudes towards robots throughout the member states. Here are a few of the results.

Would you consider purchasing a robot for your home?

  1. Sweden (48%)
  2. Finland (37%)
  3. Denmark (36%)
  4. The Netherlands (31%)

How comfortable would you be having a robot assist you at work?

  1. Sweden (77 %)
  2. The Netherlands (69 %)
  3. Denmark (65 %)
  4. The Czech republic (63 %)

How comfortable would you be as a passager in an autonomous or driverless car?
(comfortable + fairly comfortable)

  1. The Netherlands (53 %)
  2. Poland (52 %)
  3. Denmark (47 %)
  4. Sweden (47 %)

Denmark, Sweden, and the Netherlands consistently scores as the most positive towards robots and towards autonomous cars.

Good news, I think. Now is the time to start developing and implementing autonomous systems.

 

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