Far from perfect, but still much safer in the long run.
Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn is very enthusiastic for the potential safety benefits of autonomous cars, but stresses that it’ll be many years until a car can operate entirely without human intervention. At a roundtable with reporters in Las Vegas, he noted that his company’s ProPilot autonomous technology will have a gradual roll-out.
Single-lane autonomous driving is already possible in Japan’s Nissan Serena, and Ghosn says 60 percent of buyers pay for the option. The tech – which is due to proliferate to other models like the Infiniti QX50 and next-gen Leaf – will be able to handle multilane driving by 2018 and urban intersections by 2020. And by 2022 or 2023, he promises, “all conditions in the city and exceptional circumstances.”
In general, Ghosn says the he and Nissan believe that self-driving cars can be safer than human drivers. In fact, he says, both customers and regulatory agencies are enthusiastic about the technology for that reason.
“Autonomous cars and connected cars are safer, and there’s no government on earth [that] is not thrilled to [improve] safety,” he says, adding that as many as 90 percent of all car crashes are caused by human error.
As for potential owners, they’re perhaps even more interested in the ease-of-use of self-driving vehicles.
“People who are commuting spend a lot of time in their car. Today during these two or three hours [per day], they can do nothing, they need to have their hands on the wheel, eyes on the road,” he says. “Allowing them to relax and do something else is huge.”
At the same time, Ghosn cautions that it’ll be a long time until computers can solve unexpected problems as smoothly and as intuitively as humans. That’s partly why Nissan is so interested in its Seamless Autonomous Mobility (SAM) tech that could let humans remotely take over if a car’s computer couldn’t cope with a complex situation.
“No matter how powerful is the algorithm, how sophisticated, how much artificial intelligence, we’ll always find you a case where the car will be stuck,” he says. “Artificial intelligence today is not at the stage where you it can replace the human mind.”
As an example, Ghosn cites a human driver who comes to unexpected construction and finds a way to bend the rules to get around it. He suggests that at least by today’s standards, a self-driven car wouldn’t be able to make that decision.
“Maybe 15 years down the road, 20 years down the road, we can overcome that. I doubt it,” he says. “Humans know how to overcome the rules, and at the same time respect them. Computers, for the moment, don’t know.”
Ghosn says so far, his company hasn’t encountered much resistance from government agencies trying to regulate the testing or use of semi- or fully autonomous technologies.
The question of insurance and liability, however, could be a larger problem. Who pays when an autonomous car gets into a crash? Ghosn believes that with today’s driver-assist functions, the answer is straightforward.
“When the driver’s in the car, he is responsible, [whether] he drives or doesn’t drive, he is responsible. Unless there is a mechanical problem or a technical problem with the car, in which case, obviously, car manufacturer is responsible for it,” he says. “But whenever you have a driver in the car, it’s no problem of who is responsible.”
But when you completely take drivers out of the vehicle and cars drive without human supervision, insurance could be trickier.
“The problem of responsibility is much more difficult when there is no driver in the car,” he says. “This is where the problem is.”
Ghosn ended with an interesting counterargument to car enthusiasts who fear the onset of autonomous driving means the end of fun behind the wheel. Actually, he argues, autonomous technology can make driving fun again because you’re freed from the boring parts of it.
“Driving, even for the most passionate driver, is very boring if you’re in a congested highway, if you are in a traffic jam in the city,” he says. In the future, though, enthusiasts will be able to pick to only drive in fun, exciting situations. “When you have autonomous driving, you decide. So it’s going to make the pleasure of driving more obvious.”