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Witnessing the Big Bang: Truly driverless cars to hit the roads

Living in California? Get ready for truly driverless cars. (Photo: Fotolia / f11photo)

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Stephan Giesler
Stephan Giesler

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Hello, automated driving community! California becomes truly driverless, we’re working our way towards vision zero and a study shows why A.I. shouldn’t fall into the wrong hands: We bring you this week’s key stories from the world of automated driving!

“Driverless” has been part of our daily jargon for years now – but only recently has it turned into a reality: California just gave truly driverless cars the green light. So if you live in the Golden State, get ready for vehicles driving around with literally nobody inside.

The state’s Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) is eliminating the requirement for autonomous cars to have a backup person in the driver’s seat – and the rule will go live as early as April 2. The 50 firms currently holding test permits, including Waymo and NVIDIA, can then apply for a fully driverless license. They will only be required to monitor their cars remotely – and meet the following requirements:

  • Companies must inform local authorities about the area in which they’re conducting tests.
  • A "law enforcement interaction plan" for police officers must be presented to deactivate the vehicle if needed.
  • Collision reports must be submitted within 10 days.

“This is a major step forward for autonomous technology in California,” the DMV’s Director Jean Shiomoto is quoted as saying. And a step that Cali’s thriving AD industry has certainly been pushing for with united forces – so what’s in it for them?

First off, California is boosting driverless tech as long as it has free reign over it: U.S. Congress is considering a national framework that would preempt states from establishing their own laws. Its outcome is still a black box – but once it’s put into effect, it could overrule California’s system. Getting tangible results in the driverless race now is a smart move: It will make it harder for federal legislators to revert any progress made in the nation’s leading driverless testbed.

Secondly, California has been facing stiff competition from neighbors Nevada and Arizona. Although both don’t allow 100% human-free driving, the city of Phoenix was chosen by Cali companies Waymo and Uber as a location to start testing robo taxis. The two states aren’t poised to outstrip their neighbor, but they are certainly hot on its heels.

Last but not least, California is demonstrating that it is the one calling the shots in the international AD business: Offering low taxes and driver-free testing, the silicon state is marking its territory as an AD, software and A.I. powerhouse. Not only is it inspiring the next generation of AD tech, it’s also turning into a global magnet for R&D resources, investments and a skilled workforce. Lawmakers worldwide should take this strong signal seriously – especially if they want to prevent a loss of capital and avoid brain drain.

Working towards vision zero

Speaking of strong signals: Germany’s Federal Office of Statistics just released 2017’s accident numbers. They provide both good and bad news: Casualty numbers hit an all-time low, reflecting an international trend, but there was an uptick in collisions.

Compared to 2016, the number of road deaths went down by 0.9%, decreasing to 3,177 people. The number of injured even dropped by 2.1%, down to 388,200 individuals. Yet overall crashes rose by 2%. How is this possible?

Fewer road casualties are an effect of automated driving: Advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) such as auto brake and lane keep assist help prevent crashes – and significantly mitigate those who seem inevitable. Machines sense more, they think faster – and they react quicker than humans, putting our vision of zero accidents within reach.  

And the trend towards more accidents? It’s an indicator that it’s high time to expand car automation. Sick of rush hour or bored by the monotony of highway traffic, many motorists use their smartphones instead of watching the road, making distracted driving one of the main causes of accidents. AD is setting out to tackle this trend – by combining comfort with safety, enabling people to (legally) text, read or work without having to keep an eye on the road. Manual driving hasn’t lost any of its appeal – we should simply have the choice regarding when to enjoy it.

A.I.: Tackling the hacking threat

As it’s mostly the advancements of A.I. that are grabbing the headlines, fewer attention is being given to how it could be used maliciously to obstruct progress – or even do harm.  

In a current study, Oxford University researchers working with AI Policy Research Fellow Miles Brundage are exploring how attackers could turn A.I.-based technologies into a threat. Identifying three security domains (digital, physical and political security), the scientists are investigating the implications of A.I. misuse for companies and society – and how policymakers and experts can collaborate to forecast and prevent it.

Increased road safety is considered to be the key factor that will help make AD a reality, as it chiefly contributes to improving public trust and acceptance. To make technology truly safe, we must ensure its progress – but also investigate any potential pitfalls. Check out the Oxford team’s study in our 2025AD database.  

So long, drive safely (until cars are driverless),

Stephan Giesler

Editor-in-Chief, 2025AD

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