Sharon Di Studying How To Ensure Safety of Driverless Cars

The first-of-its-kind traffic fatality in Tempe involving a self-driving car has elicited tremendous attention and alarm among public and policy makers, who are concerned about the interaction between autonomous vehicles with drivers, cyclists and pedestrians. We are likely months away from having the results of a detailed investigation into what went wrong and which factors contributed most directly to the accident. There are several possibilities, ranging from the human operator to prevailing conditions to the behavior of the pedestrian. 

At Columbia University, a unique team of researchers, led by Dr. Sharon Di, is trying to adapt previously unlinked models of traffic flow and accidents to understand how different liability regimes may influence human and manufacturer behavior. As autonomous vehicle technology grows, the team’s goal is to develop sophisticated modeling frameworks that can be calibrated with real-world traffic flow and accident data, so as to generate policy proposals that produce a desirable combination of safety and efficiency. One critical question in their research considers whether there is a plausible “tipping point” in the penetration of autonomous vehicle technology where legal and regulatory institutions and practices must quickly adapt.

The innovation of the self-driving car has been creating a lot of buzz for some time in both public, academic, and commercial domains. Indeed, we as a transportation community appreciate the benefits that this emergent technology is expected to bring to our day-to-day activities. A big question here is, however, whether we are ready as a society to accept such a transformative change? Addressing all the questions and concerns highlighted above is extremely critical and time-sensitive, but necessary if we are to ensure the expected benefits associated with self-driving cars. The crash that killed this pedestrian is a testimony of that. Hence a comprehensive scientific research encompassing areas of traffic, legal and computation is warranted to ensure that our future with self-driving cars is safe and secured.

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