What impact did World War II have on driverless cars?

AiiA Editor

The lesser-known expansion on the 4th Geneva Convention treaty, the Geneva Convention on Road Traffic, set new criteria for international traffic law in order to standardize road regulations between borders and to promote safety. While the 1949 Geneva Convention’s series of pacts is most famed for mandating humane treatment of wounded soldiers, civilians, and PoWs, the historic document may now stand in direct opposition to the development of autonomous vehicles.

According to the treaty, all vehicles on the road “shall have a driver. [Drivers] shall at all times be able to control their vehicles or guide their animals. When approaching other road users, they shall take such precautions as may be required for the safety of the latter.” The treaty goes on to specify that a driver is someone who is “in actual physical control of [the vehicle].”

This provision may most likely be satisfied if there is a driver ready to take the wheel at any time. This falls in line with the vision of many autonomous car pioneers... but not all. Google, for instance, seems to be aiming to leave a steering wheel out of their car completely, to the chagrin of California lawmakers.

There are also concepts of cars being able to drive home after dropping the driver off at work, or of driverless taxis – these would all be considered Level 4 of autonomy, at which cars are fully independent. Even Level 3 of autonomy, at which the vehicle is only semi-autonomous and outright needs a human touch when faced with construction zones or other unexpected conditions, plays host to concerns. Fears abound that drivers would fall asleep, watch movies, or get drunk while their car did the driving, leaving them ill-equipped to take control of the vehicle.

The problem has some car manufacturers eschewing fully autonomous vehicles altogether. Toyota, specifically, has favored assistive drive over autonomous drive, citing safety concerns. Kristen Tabar, vice president at the Toyota technical center in Saline, Michigan, said “The human being is the ultimate in sensor fusion. We have the visual, audible advantage, all the different inputs to make the best judgments moving forward.”

Major detractors, such as an anonymous expert from Germany’s HUK Coburg insurance, refuse to even take the concept seriously, stating that autonomous cars “belong in the realm of science fiction.”

Proponents of autonomous drive, however, consider autonomous cars inevitable, despite the regulatory pushback both modern and WW-2- era. Some see a new set of laws set to hit the books in the coming decades. "In the distant future, [legislators] may outlaw driven cars because they’re too dangerous," Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors, said recently.

This type of about-face in regulatory opinion does have a prior precedent – cruise control was a controversial topic back when it was first patented in 1945 by Ralph Teetor; both Congress and the functionality’s inventor had qualms about the introduction of the technology.

However, public demand and an excellent safety record overrode regulatory hesitance by the time it was introduced into vehicles in 1958.

Musk recognizes that safety above all will bring both customers and regulators around: “They all want to see a large amount of statistical proof that it's not merely as safe as a person, but much safer.” Nevertheless, he sees autonomous cars becoming “normal. Like an elevator.” It is important to note that mechanical elevators were, just like autonomous cars, seen as dangerous novelty toys for wealthy eccentrics at their inception – now they’re universal.

If the benefits of autonomous cars surpass the doubts about their proficiency, and if consumers flock to the product, we may well see it result in an amendment to a treaty which will, at that point, be roughly a century old. Our world will likely change as drastically as it has since 1949.