19 FAQs about self-driving cars

Moving Well | RACV | Posted on 06 September 2017

RACV experts Ernest Litera and Nick Platt answer common questions about autonomous vehicles.

What's the point of a driverless car?

Most road trauma and death is attributed to driver error. The principle behind driverless cars is that if you remove the driver you reduce this risk markedly. Moreover, driverless cars could be enormously liberating to people who are disabled or vision impaired.

When will self-driving car technology be commonplace and how much will it cost?

There’s a lot of cutting-edge technology in these cars and to make them fully automated there’ll need to be a whole bunch more. All this technology in a vehicle initially costs a great deal and takes time to perfect. However, if other advanced vehicle systems are anything to go by, costs tend to come down pretty quickly. In terms of when this will all happen, fully automated cars will probably be available before the law allows them to be used. An educated estimate would put this in the five to 10-year timespan.

Is it true that most of us will not own the autonomous car and that we'll just rent by the hour?

This remains to be seen. The ride-share model is clearly pretty popular, but there still have to be enough cars to cover periods of high use such as school drop-off and pick-up. People also like to own their own vehicle. It really depends on how much the technology costs.

Ernest with a Volvo S90, Mercedes E300 and BMW 540i

Ernest with a Volvo S90, Mercedes E300 and BMW 540i.

Man testing an autonomous car

Ernest behind the wheel of the Volvo.

How long before it will become illegal to ‘self’ drive a car?

By definition, this can’t happen until every car on the road is automated. From a simple fleet perspective, if every manufacturer right now stopped selling anything but driverless cars, this wouldn’t be close to happening for another 15 years. However, we’re probably five to 10 years from driverless cars even being available, assuming the legislation is in place. Prohibiting self-driving may never happen anyway since automated vehicles will be able to adapt to the actions of other cars. You wouldn’t expect a very small number of driven cars to cause a problem. Perhaps another question may be, when will people lose the ability to drive a car?

Who gets charged for any offence or liability caused by the driverless car?

When we get to the level of full automation – that is when there’s no human involved in the driving task – then we’d expect the manufacturer to be responsible. Most manufacturers who’ve considered this agree. At the moment, we’re not at full automation so ultimately the driver is responsible for the safe operation of the vehicles.

Can driverless cars be hacked?

A lot of people ask this. At the moment, vehicles with self-driving car technology are fairly self-contained so the opportunity for real-time hacking is somewhat limited. However, in the future there is a vision for cars to be communicating with each other and the road infrastructure quite extensively. This issue is being taken very seriously by experts and regulators in the field.

Has any thought been given to the people who will take advantage of driverless cars by deliberately not giving way to them?

Possibly, but there is a massive risk of collision if they do. Drivers of non-automated cars will still be subject to road laws and these will still be enforced.

What if a kangaroo jumps out in front of a driverless car?

The 360-degree always-on sensor suite integral to automated vehicles would stand a much better chance of detecting and taking appropriate action. The unique locomotion of our national emblem is being given some serious consideration by companies such as Volvo.

If a GPS can direct a driver to drive into the water (and on occasion it has) how will a driverless car be better?

Although GPS systems are sometimes out of date, automated vehicles also detect the road itself so even if the GPS was giving duff info it’d still keep to the road.

How do they handle multiple line markings? Do the current vehicles manage to correctly track the one set continuously?

This is actually part of what we are trying to find out with trials like this. For the most part the cars we tested read the lines pretty well when they were white, but sometimes struggled with the yellow markings.

Have any driverless cars done 500,000 kilometres in the real world without problems?

Manufacturers are clocking up mileage all the time at their testing facilities. In the real world, the likes of Google cars and the mainstream manufacturers are racking up a lot of kilometres too. It depends what you mean by ‘without problem’. It’s doubtful that any system has chalked up that sort of distance with any fault.

Can a driverless car tow a caravan or boat?

People will still want to tow boats and caravans, so we’d expect manufacturers to design automated cars with this capability.

How will automated cars cope with bad rural roads?

What we’ve found so far is that the quality of the road surface is less of an issue than the presence of line markings.

How are driverless test vehicles coping with pedestrians and cyclists?

We haven’t come across too many so far, but all of these cars are equipped with auto emergency brakes which work very effectively at protecting vulnerable road users.

What were the concerns/improvement requirements discovered through the trial?

The biggest concerns we had so far were to do with automatic detection and reading of road signs and the yellow temporary lines on the Tullamarine Fwy.

Does your attention wander? How do you stay awake while the car is being driven?

For our test, no. Because it was fairly intensive and we were concentrating on observing the operation of the system. However, the ability of drivers to stay on task in monitoring these systems is a big question mark that the manufacturers and legislators are nutting out. It is possible and maybe even likely that manufacturers will try to get fully automated systems to the market as soon as possible to prevent this uncertainty.

Will Formula 1 be driverless?

Formula 1 is a test of driver skill and advanced aids are minimal. Already they could be much faster than they already are if the kind of driver aids you have on a family car were permitted. We’d expect it will always remain so.

Will there be driverless cars that talk like KITT out of Knight Rider?

Probably unlikely since William Daniels, the actor who voiced KITT, is now 90 years old. Seriously though, voice-activated features are already a thing in modern cars and we’d expect this trend to continue.

If you are unfortunate enough to have a bingle with a driverless car, how can you exchange names and address with the driver?

You’d simply take note of the other vehicle’s rego and the other particulars of the crash. This could be corroborated by the vehicle sensors.