Humans break laws, autonomous vehicles do not – And that’s why they will have a hard time in mixed traffic

Ima­gi­ne you are dri­ving on a sub­ur­ban street and all of a sud­den a ball boun­ces onto the road. You will imme­dia­te­ly slow down and be very cau­tious whilst con­ti­nuous­ly che­cking for kids who might fol­low the ball onto the street.

Wit­hin less than a second your brain and body have per­for­med qui­te a few tasks, which can be bro­ken down into three simp­le steps.

Your eyes see the ball and send that signal to your brain

Your brain takes this new infor­ma­ti­on (‘ball on the street’) and draws the con­clu­si­on that a kid might fol­low.

Your brain sends out elec­tric signals to your right foot to step on the break, ano­t­her signal to your hands to grab the stee­ring wheel tigh­ter and to your inter­nal sys­tems to release a shot of adre­na­lin to be pre­pa­red for fur­t­her action.

How would an auto­no­mous vehi­cle behave in such a situa­ti­on? Loo­king at it without atten­ti­on to details, an auto­no­mous car does the same three steps, just some­what dif­fe­rent.

A varie­ty of sen­sors con­ti­nuous­ly moni­tor their sur­roun­dings. To be frank, in many regards, auto­no­mous vehi­cles are bet­ter at this step than humans are. Auto­no­mous cars do not blur their sen­ses with drugs and alco­hol, they have bet­ter night-visi­on, and are poten­ti­al­ly less affec­ted by reflec­tions.

While humans have brains, auto­no­mous cars have their cen­tral pro­ces­sing unit. Just like our brain, it inte­gra­tes all the infor­ma­ti­on recei­ved from the various sen­sors and pro­ces­ses them towards the situa­ti­on-spe­ci­fic appro­pria­te action. Admit­ted­ly, com­pa­red to our indi­vi­du­al (and espe­ci­al­ly our soci­al memo­ry), the auto­no­mous car still lacks expe­ri­ence to draw from but over time it will increa­se. More con­cre­te­ly, while for us humans it does make no dif­fe­rence whe­ther the ball on the street is blue, green or white – a foot­ball, a ten­nis ball or a bas­ket­ball, the­se are dis­tinct situa­ti­ons for an auto­no­mous car and learning to deal with this com­ple­xi­ty will take time.

This is whe­re it beco­mes very tri­cky! Not so much in the spe­ci­fic kid-ball examp­le (brea­king is a very good opti­on here), but in more gene­ral traf­fic situa­ti­ons. Auto­no­mous cars are trai­ned and pro­gram­med to stick to the traf­fic rules 100%, no excep­ti­on. Which human dri­ver does that? Nobo­dy, 0%, no excep­ti­on! In order to par­ti­ci­pa­te in our com­plex car-based traf­fic sys­tem effec­tively, we break small rules all the time. Take the examp­le of mer­ging onto a busy road whe­re, by law, we are sup­po­sed to wait until we can free­ly enter, every human dri­ver ‘crea­tes’ his gap by slow­ly try­ing to enter until one kind per­son lea­ves some room – In an auto­no­mous car, we would be wai­ting without any action.

To con­clu­de this litt­le, and in parts sim­pli­fied, examp­le: Any situa­ti­on whe­re we have mixed traf­fic, mea­ning human dri­vers inter­ac­ting with auto­no­mous vehi­cles, our auto­no­mous fri­ends will have a hard time unless they learn to ‘appro­pria­te­ly break the law’ when necessa­ry to enab­le traf­fic flow. Howe­ver, allo­wing that to hap­pen and thus making auto­no­mous vehi­cles tru­ly human brings about an ent­i­re new set of ethi­cal dis­cus­sions.

Most fun­da­ment­al­ly, mixed traf­fic is still a key chal­len­ge; we are just star­ting to under­stand how big it is.

Get­ting to the core of this issue is an important task for auto­no­mous vehi­cle deve­l­o­pers, insuran­ce pro­vi­ders, func­tio­nal safe­ty experts and the public trans­por­ta­ti­on depart­ments of lar­ger cities.

You want to find out more? Get in touch & let’s dis­cuss


Rainer Hoffmann

Seni­or Part­ner


Andreas Gabriels

Head of
Busi­ness Intel­li­gence


Benjamin Scher

Stra­te­gy &
Inno­va­ti­on Con­sul­tant