What happens when we need to take back control from automated cars?

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Automated cars are coming, that’s clear. By 2017, the first range of motorway autonomous vehicles will leave the factories and begin transporting everyday consumers up and down the highways of Britain and elsewhere in the world without much interaction at all. But of course there are going to be moments when they can’t. Road works with complicated routes through cones, or in heavy snow or fog, all of them could cause the car to lose its ability to navigate without a human.

So what happens then?

The ‘driver’ needs to take back control of the vehicle. That would be fine in a traditional car because they would be sat behind the wheel, probably with their hands on or near it, ready to go. But what about in the automated vehicles of the future? While we know manual controls will still be mandated by governments, what if the ‘driver’ is asleep or not paying attention? What if they are drunk or otherwise unsafe to take control of the vehicle – a very legitimate reason to use one with automation?

This is one of the major challenges facing those developing cars that can drive themselves around. While those with motorway automation vehicles will likely be relatively alert behind the wheel, since they won’t be expecting to go hours and hours without interacting with the car, that may not be the case when cars that can drive themselves in more varied conditions become available in the mid 2020s.

One day even one hand on the wheel might be too much.

One day even one hand on the wheel might be too much.

The first system that would need to be in place would be an advanced warning system, as even if a person is capable of driving, in a position to do so and ready and willing, it is still going to take them some time to get ready. 10 seconds or more of warning would be mandatory, but for safety reasons it would need to be much longer. It would also need to be loud enough or obvious enough to wake someone if they were travelling by themselves.

A secondary system would have to be in place too though. If the ‘driver’ is drunk, or otherwise unable to control the vehicle safely, the car could simply park itself somewhere safe and give the person time to sober up or get ready to take control. However there will be situations where that won’t be possible. So what happens then?

The probable solution will be remote assistance. It would likely be a costly service, but having real humans in a support centre that can take over the vehicle and control it as needed may be the best way to solve that problem. Though of course latency and bandwidth issues may be an issue in more remote areas. And then you have to factor in the security concerns of making it easy for a remote actor to take control of the car. What if a hacker is able to do the same?

What would your solution to this problem be?

Image source: Wikimedia

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Jon Martindale is an English author and journalist, who's written for a number of high-profile technology news outlets, covering everything from the latest hardware and software releases, to hacking scandals and online activism.