Bill's Conversational Musings

The Challenges of the Self Driving Car

Tesla Model S - Title Image
Photo by Mario Roberto Durán Ortiz via Wikimedia CC

I first posted this article on LinkedIn.

I am revisiting an article I wrote on my blog back in 2015. There seems to be an increase in articles about semi- and fully-autonomous vehicles. I thought it might be worth taking a look back at some of my thoughts and predictions around self-driving vehicles and asking some new questions.

The questions I have asked in the past and continue to ponder are: How close are we to making this a reality? What still needs to be done? How much control are we willing to surrender to the computer. How will the car handle unpredictable circumstances? I'll attempt to frame these questions from three different points of view.

  1. How I experience it currently, for example, in my daily commute.

  2. How the same situation might work with a semi-autonomous vehicle.
  3. How the same situation might play out with a fully autonomous vehicle.

Unpredicted things in the road that need to be avoided.

Currently: As I am driving down the road I might spot something I want to avoid. For instance, one day we encountered a family of ducks crossing the road. We have all seen it, the mother duck and her ducklings following behind her in single file. Drivers were already stopped in the oncoming lane and flashing their headlights and waving their hands at us.

Not only were we able to spot the ducks and slow down before they came into our lane, we were able to alert other motorists by turning on our flashers and sticking our hands out the window. Mama and her followers scurried to the safety of the pond on the other side of the road.

Semi-autonomous vehicle: My concern is that in a semi-autonomous vehicle the person in the driver seat might not see what is happening. In this case the ducks parading across the road. I predict the average driver would be on their phone either browsing, texting or talking. If the driver did realize the events soon enough, how fast can they wrestle control from the car and take action? With the array of optical, radar and ultrasonic sensors around the vehicle, could it detect and react to something as small as a family of ducks?

Fully autonomous vehicle: How would the car even know there is trouble ahead? Would traffic stopped in the oncoming lanes be any indication that a complicated situation was ahead and could be crossing into our lane? My first guess is probably not. Same question as above regarding all the sensors. Would they see and identify the ducks?

What happens if traffic comes to a halt, how can I take an alternate route?

My car: Sometimes on the way to work I'll take an alternate route. This usually happens when traffic is at a complete standstill. I'll find a parallel road three or so miles away and take it. Knowing different routes into the office has helped save time and fuel.

Semi-autonomous: The vehicles will not blindly follow the navigation system...yet. It would stand to reason that the idea is in the works somewhere. The ability to take control of the vehicle gives the driver the option to make those navigation adjustments.

Fully autonomous: How would it be possible for a fully autonomous car to take an alternate route? Perhaps you could use an application on your smartphone to control it like you do a drone. Sometimes the system-recommended automated routes are not any better. Waze, for example, will route you to an access road when the mainlanes of a highway are packed. Oftentimes, those paths are just as busy as the highway you are on.

What do you do when you get behind somebody who is driving too slow or unsafe?

My car: In Texas, there is a tradition/courtesy that when you are driving slow, such as on a two-lane blacktop, you might drive on the improved shoulder of the road to let others behind you pass when it is safe to do so. Most of the time, however, people do not do this and will continue to drive 50 MPH in a 70 MPH zone. When passing is allowed it is indicated on the road (usually by a broken yellow line) and , when safe, you can accelerate around the car and continue on your way.

Semi-autonomous: I read that the systems on some cars will identify the speed limit sign and auto set the velocity to that value. The driver could over-ride the steering to make a pass. What happens if the sign is blocked by something like a tree or another sign?

Fully autonomous: Would the car just continue to drive at the speed of the car in front of it? Sometimes going too slow is a safety hazard. Can you pass using a self-driving Car? Would it know when it is safe to pass based on oncoming traffic? Perhaps you could ID the car that is being driven poorly and know to keep clear of it. I might predict that if both vehicles were fully autonomous, the slower one would allow the faster one to pass in a safe manner.


These are just a few of the questions that come to mind when people entertain the thought of letting the car do the driving and you are nothing more than a passenger. For shuttles and delivery vehicles in a controlled environment, these technologies could prove invaluable in the money saved and improved efficiency. However, with all the variables on and around the open road, enormous amounts of more research will need to be done before we turn driving over to the computer. As somebody who is tech savvy, I know there will be an adoption period for the general public. But, just like phone vs. text, people will pick it up when they realize the benefit in their lives.

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So, what do you think? Did I miss anything? Is any part unclear?

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