A Robotics Expert Answers All Of Our Questions About Driverless Cars


I’m probably the world’s worst driver. And it’s not just that I’m bad at driving, I don’t like driving. I think it’s stressful and boring. So believe me when I say: I am counting the days down until level-5 autonomous cars hit the road. I want the kind of car where I say, “Cool. So, I can take a nap and binge-watch Arrested Development now?” and the car responds “Of course, sweetie!” and brews me a warm mug of cocoa. But while I’m probably overly excited about self-driving technology, plenty of others are frightened of our driverless future. A survey from triple AAA recently discovered that 63% of drivers are too afraid to take a ride in a fully self-driving car — an improvement from a year ago, when that number was 78%.

The seismic change in how we get from point A to point B seems to be an inevitability. It was just revealed that Apple has a permit for 55 self-driving cars in California, Uber has a serious plan to make long-haul semi trucks driverless in the next few years, and Waymo, Google’s sister company, recently bought 20,000 self-driving cars from Jaguar. Waymo says that by 2020 their driverless ride-hailing service fleet could be logging one million miles a day. That’s only two years from now.

With the timeline for driverless cars rapidly accelerating, the average person is sure to have questions. So we polled the best and brightest (and most skeptical) members of our team and asked their questions to Dr. Henrik I. Christensen — the Qualcomm Chancellor’s Chair of Robot Systems at UC San Diego and director of The Contextual Robotics Institute.

Getty Image

How would you define a “self-driving car?” Do you think the current idea of a “self-driving car” implies a level of autonomy on the car’s part that isn’t accurate?

The present NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) definitions of autonomy are crude but a great starting point for the consideration of autonomy. Most of the low-levels of autonomy are purely driver augmentation. In reality, it is at levels 3-5 of autonomy where we have to consider how a vehicle truly interfaces with people.

Note: The levels of car autonomy describes how independent a car is based on how much human control is required to operate it. The scale goes from 0 — the human driver is totally in control of all function of the vehicle, to 5 — where there is full-automation and the car doesn’t require a human pilot at all.