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Expert Voices

To succeed, AVs will have to communicate with human drivers

red car with a speech bubble displaying a flashing ellipsis (as in text messaging apps)
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Human drivers are faulted for most accidents involving autonomous vehicles, but closer inspection reveals the responsibility for such incidents is more complex and shared: many appear to have occurred when an AV took an action that was technically legal and safe, but which a human driver did not expect.

The big picture: As more AVs are tested and put into mainstream service, developers must ensure that humans interact safely and efficiently with them, whether on the road or as pedestrians. If not integrated into a larger change-management plan, AVs could end up causing more accidents, congestion and public resistance.

The way AVs drive, at least for now, is fundamentally different from the way humans do, which may create inefficient and dangerous miscommunications.

  • Machines learn by rules, algorithms, data-driven decisions and visual inputs of object and trajectory — all guided by the prime directive of avoiding objects in their path.
  • Humans rely on different principles and experiences, as well as subtler cues from the environment, drivers and pedestrians (for example, the head nod that signals the go-ahead to merge).
  • Humans also operate in a risk-reward setting — balancing the odds of an accident, say, with the odds of missing a flight.

What's needed: Public policy should ensure that autonomous development includes ways for humans to better identify and interact with AVs. While a lidar unit on top of an AV is usually a dead giveaway, a Tesla on autopilot is not. Beyond identification, machine-to-human communication needs to be explicitly designed. (An instructive example is Jaguar’s experimentation with “eyes” that communicate with pedestrians.) If AVs can communicate their intentions and next moves, humans will better respond.

The bottom line: AV developers, manufacturers, insurers and regulators will have to devise a more specific, thought-out vision for how humans and machines share the road. If they don't, public resistance could well impede the AV transition.

Steve Verney is the CFO of National Auto Care and the former EVP and chief risk officer of Allstate.