Do We Need Steering Wheels in Self-Driving Cars?

Jason Lomberg, North American Editor, PSD



The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has vowed to review automotive safety standards that force self-driving cars to include redundant equipment like steering wheels, pedals, and other features. This couldn’t come at a more pivotal moment in the worldwide ascension of autonomous cars and the Internet of things (IoT).

Arguably the greatest beneficiary of a functional IoT is the automotive sector, with the IoT allowing autonomous vehicles to communicate with each other and reduce accidents substantially.

Autonomous vehicles have infinitely quicker reflexes than human drivers. But without the ability to communicate with other vehicles “thinking” at superhuman speed, and without being able to control for illogical (aka, human) behavior, self-driving cars can’t realize their true potential.

And until autonomous vehicles take over the roads, we’ll need safeguards – like humans and steering wheels for them to use. Otherwise, autonomous vehicles might be a bit too … robotic for humans to accept.

As I pointed out in my August column, self-driving cars are rational and efficient. Maybe too efficient. In a test case, a Waymo self-driving car narrowly avoid an accident – a car running a red light from the right side of an intersection – by slowing down but not stopping. Most human drivers in the same scenario would probably come to a full stop. But then, autonomous cars wouldn’t run a red light.

Meanwhile, a self-driving Uber was involved in a fatal accident because engineers disabled the Volvo’s emergency braking system to "to reduce the potential for erratic vehicle behavior." So our predilection for comfortable (aka, human) driving patterns killed someone. And it’ll happen again.

Then again, if the human occupant wasn’t distracted (“monitoring the self-driving interface”), she could’ve taken the wheel and prevented the crash. Provided there was a wheel (there was).

In an 80-page memo, Automated Vehicles 3.0, the Department of Transportation (DoT) promised to review outdated safety standards that might exclude autonomous vehicles without things like steering wheels.

The document “affirms U.S. DOT’s authority to establish motor vehicle safety standards that allow for innovative automated vehicle designs— such as vehicles without steering wheels, pedals, or mirrors —and notes that such an approach may require a more fundamental revamping of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) approach to safety standards.”

But just how outdated are redundant safety standards (like steering wheels)? And will the public allow the broader deployment of autonomous vehicles without backup systems (again, like steering wheels) in the case of emergencies?

A mature IoT can do some amazing (theoretical) work, but we might never completely eliminate human drivers – the same document which calls for a fresh look at safety standards mandating steering wheels in every car claims the “DOT embraces the freedom of the open road, which includes the freedom for Americans to drive their own vehicles.”

We’re nowhere close to SAE Automation Level 5 – Full Automation. But human behavior never really changes, and even if we do voluntarily cede control of the wheel, we might still want a wheel as backup.