One Problem With Self-Driving Cars? Other Drivers

Mercedes-Benz F015 Concept

CARS.COM — When will fully self-driving cars hit the market? Opinions vary. Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who thinks the industry is less than two years away, is among the optimists. At the other end is Todd Litman, founder of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, who thinks fully self-driving cars may not become commercially available until the 2030s or 2040s.

More 2016 L.A. Auto Show Coverage

Nobody really knows exactly when fully self-driving cars — the sort that qualify for SAE International's Level 4 or Level 5 status — will hit the mass market. Significant technology and regulatory hurdles remain.

Mercedes-Benz's Dietmar Exler has another wrinkle: everyone else on the road. Exler, who heads up the luxury brand's U.S. arm, spoke at AutoConference LA, an event hosted by the National Auto Dealers Association and J.D. Power and Associates on the eve of the 2016 Los Angeles Auto Show.

As Exler explained, the M.O. of any self-driving technology is safety. That, in turn, drives a directive to maintain proper following distances — something you've experienced if you ever use adaptive cruise control. But therein lies a problem: A self-driving car will always leave a safe following distance behind the car ahead, even in bumper-to-bumper traffic. And as anyone who's been in Southern California gridlock knows all too well, that means another driver (or three) will cut you off. Again and again, and again.

"It keeps a safe distance, and then another human cuts it off," Exler said. "Is it you or the guy behind you who starts screaming first?"

Conference attendees chuckled. It's easy to envision: A self-driving car would forever yield. Aggressive drivers would have a field day at its expense. And automakers can't exactly change that.

"As a manufacturer, that's a little bit of a problem to tell a regulator, 'Would you kindly certify a car that violates traffic rules?'" he said. "Humans will just bully autonomously driving vehicles."

Exler said it's unrealistic to expect a dedicated highway lane for self-driving cars, as some have advocated, given the bureaucratic and logistical hoops to get there. Until the vast majority of cars are self-driving, the relationship between self-driving cars and those operated by people will remain complicated.

That transition could take a while. A 2012 study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety estimated it takes 30 years for an important safety feature to go from its introduction to the point where 95 percent of the cars — new and used — have it. At that pace, fully self-driving cars wouldn't saturate the market until the 2040s even if they showed up tomorrow.

 
More From Cars.com