Will You Need a Rider’s License for Your Driverless Car?

Robotic cars are coming. The IT and automobile industries have the throttle wide open to be the first to get the human out of the loop. The “Google Car” is becoming synonymous with an entirely new mode of transport. In January 2016, President Barack Obama and U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx announced a budget of $4 billion to accelerate how fast robots will hit the roads. Driverless technology is coming fast — but the period between now and full automation, or what transportation geeks call Level-4 automation, will require a significant period of transition. Level-4 automation is when the car will monitor road conditions and perform all safety functions without human control for an entire trip. Beyond the business, policy, legal, and transportation infrastructure issues, one of the first challenges will be to map out the new roles and responsibilities of the driver, turned rider, in our robotic future.  


I took a ride last week in the New England University Transportation Center and MIT AgeLab’s tricked-out Tesla equipped with sensors to monitor driver behavior and physiological state as they operate a semi-autonomous high-styled computer on wheels. Riding shotgun, I somewhat nervously watched my AgeLab colleague take his hands from the wheel to demonstrate the prowess of our semi-robotic vehicle. As our smart car ably and independently navigated the tight lanes on Memorial Drive alongside the Charles River, I found myself unconsciously leaning inward and away from the cars parked on the side of the road as if to influence the car’s path or to put distance between me and a long line of parked vehicles. I began to wonder not about the effectiveness of the technology, but how the role of the driver, soon to be passenger-for-life, may change. Will there be new rules, regulations, and responsibilities for the driverless car rider? Here are five questions that may shape the future of a rider license.

How to learn new technology? Before the car does it all, we will need to relearn how to drive. Devices and driver interfaces in the car today have changed more in the last 10 years than drivers have seen over several decades. Research conducted by the AgeLab and The Hartford Center for Mature Market Excellence suggests that drivers, particularly drivers over 50 years old, are interested in automated systems that help them drive and keep them safe. Despite the interest, drivers of all ages are stymied by the lack of education from automobile dealers, or anyone else, to help them learn, trust, and ultimately adopt today’s new warning and automated systems that are the precursor of tomorrow’s fully robotic car. 

How to transition from riding to driving? It may be some time before the car goes point to point with little input from the rider other than providing the desired destination. In the meantime, we may see dedicated roads or lanes for driverless cars leading to human-operated car roads and lanes. How long will it take the driver to put down their coffee or email to attain the situational awareness to assume adequate and safe control of the vehicle? Will transition from human control to automated control back to human be part of a new driver education curriculum or learned on-the-road at 60 MPH the way drivers are learning semi-automated systems today?

What is safe rider behavior? Other than the promise of safety, automated vehicles fill our imagination with ideas of what we might be able to do in the time that is lost today during our daily commutes. Despite the law, and common sense, we see people eat, drink, comb hair, shave, apply makeup, talk on the phone, text, and more behind the wheel. Volvo and partners are seeking to provide seamless streaming of entertainment to the car to fill those newly freed minutes and hours. Beyond streaming a movie, imagine for a moment what else might fill empty hours in your home on wheels. Will regulators or insurers set standards of what is reasonable behavior in vehicles where every seat is effectively the backseat?

What to do when it fails? Vehicle technology under development is good — really good, but it will fail. However infrequent and statistically de minimus, technology fails even in the most advanced and tested systems. Google recently reported that over 14 months up to November 2015, humans had to take control of their driverless car 341 times because of technology failure. Will riders of the future need to be prepared to act due to critical failure, a glitch, or to simply manage a delay due to a software update?

Will you buy rider’s insurance? During the many interim years where it will be unclear of where control lies, with the vehicle or the driver, how will risk be assessed, assigned and priced? Fast-forward when the vehicle is truly automated, will riders require insurance to manage the risk of riding in the car of the future?

Back in AgeLab’s semi-autonomous car — we parallel parked inches from the curb and spaced perfectly between two other vehicles using the Tesla’s automated parking system. All I could think was where was this awesome technology when I took my driver’s test? Tomorrow’s autonomous vehicle will revolutionize transportation — making personal mobility safer and seamless for people of all ages and capacities. While hard science and technology will make that future possible, we must urgently address the "softer" human challenges of transitioning to that safer mobile future.

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