With an increasing number of companies
like Tesla, Google, and Mercedes-Benz, starting to develop self-driving cars,
this concept is becoming more of a reality. However, if and when self-driving cars become the norm, will they actually benefit society or create more complications? Below, we explore both sides of the argument.
Self-Driving Cars Will Save Both Lives and Money
Eight. That’s the number of people who are killed each day in the United States due to distracted driving, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Throw in the number of people who are injured in such crashes – a devastating 1,161 per day – and you might begin to wonder why we even drive in the first place.
Well, we know the answer to that question. It’s because driving allows us to work farther away, get places faster, and live our lives more conveniently. In terms of control, our only option has been letting humans take the wheel – or the reins, depending on what mode of transportation you’re using. But industry aided by advancements in technology has quickly sped up to provide a more attractive alternative: autonomous cars.
Autonomous cars, more popularly referred to as “self-driving cars”, work using a combination of several technologies. Street signs and traffic lights are recognized and respected using video cameras while radar technology detects nearby vehicles, ensuring a safe distance between cars. Ultrasonic sensors and LIDAR technology recognize the car’s surroundings when driving and parking while a central processing unit uses all of this data to handle accelerating, steering, and braking. These technologies could virtually eliminate deaths caused by distracted or impaired driving.
Not only do autonomous vehicles have the potential to dramatically reduce the number of vehicle-related deaths, they could also save the economy a tremendous amount of money and help mitigate everyone’s least favorite part of driving, traffic.
In 2013, the Eno Center for Transportation released a report on the topic titled “Preparing a Nation for Autonomous Vehicles: Opportunities, Barriers, and Policy Recommendations”. In the report, Eno cites data that suggests self-driving cars could potentially lead to a 40 percent fatal crash-rate reduction when accounting for proper development of the technology and constant driving conditions. And this reduction relates to crashes involving the influence of drugs, alcohol, or fatigue. This does not even take into consideration the potential reductions to crashes caused by simple human error. Even in cases where environmental or roadway conditions contributed to a crash, human factors including inattention or speeding have regularly heightened the likelihood of the crash or the severity of the crash. According to the Eno Center, over 90 percent of car crashes occur due to driver error. That is a staggering number, and a statistic that could be drastically reduced (if not totally eliminated) with autonomous vehicle technology. In addition to lowering the human cost of such accidents, autonomous vehicle technology could help save the economy money; the annual economic cost of crashes is $300 billion.
Autonomous vehicle technology can also reduce the problem of congestion thanks to its ability to make better, less selfish driving decisions by using roadways and intersections more efficiently. In fact, many of these features that are part of autonomous vehicle technology are already being incorporated into existing driver-controlled vehicles, which will allow us to witness the benefits of such technology before cars are fully autonomous.
Naturally, a significant percentage of the public is resistant to the widespread use of such technology. Self-driving cars combine two things people and society as a whole are quite fearful of: change and a perceived loss of control. But the benefits far outweigh any drawbacks. One could even argue that the drawbacks are a non-issue since most doubts can readily be addressed through proper development and testing. As with any new technology, effective regulation is necessary to ensure safety and accountability. The conversation, then, would better benefit if it moved away from asking, “should we drive autonomous vehicles?” to “how can we make fully autonomous vehicles a safe and widely-used reality?”
Self-Driving Car Problems Will Arise From Human and Legal Factors
The science-fiction dream of self-driving cars is almost upon us. Production models capable of self-navigation, threat recognition and journey management are taking their first drives on real interstates, with all the perils they pose.
Yet, for all the inevitability of this technology, there are a great many reasons not to adopt it.
Even with all the tens of thousands of miles and hours of testing for each brand of vehicle, the artificial intelligence and rules-based smartness that drives these systems remains unproven. They have yet to encounter a fraction of the scenarios that drivers face on the open road on a daily basis.
Unexpected limitations, such as the low-sun at just the wrong angle, combined with a breaking failure, that caused the recent first fatal Tesla self-driving incident are just one example of a combination of factors that technology cannot overcome. Extreme weather conditions will badly inhibit self-driving cars’ sensors, while any number of other scenarios have yet to be discovered.
The Human Factors
The second category of issue for self-driving cars remains the human factor, both inside and outside the cabin. Every day we hear of:
- Commercial pilots dazzled by laser pointers at airports.
- Computer systems hacked by kids for fun.
- The promise of 99.9% uptime for a cloud service shattered by some major outage.
- Vandalism or theft of technology-laden systems around the world.
Imagine the target that a computerized self-driving car presents to these malcontents or hackers. All of these failure-inducing factors can create scenarios that the car’s systems cannot be expected to cope with.
As for the driver, legally, they need to remain alert and ready to take over. But, as familiarity breeds overconfidence, will they really be ready at the moment when an unpredictable situation does arise that the computer can’t cope with?
The Money and Legal Issues
Before we even get to the situation where many road users are in self-driving cars, there remains a mountain of paperwork and other issues to resolve. The current self-driving models are all very high-end and expensive, crammed with technology. Selling these cars to non-enthusiast users will require a revision of how vehicles are sold, and how customers are introduced and trained to use them. A whole new generation of driving schools may be required, although at least virtual training will allow this to take place at home, or even in the vehicle, in simulation mode.
Then there are legal issues for states, countries and other legislatures to work through, insurance liability issues to be considered. Much of this work has been started, but final draft proposals could be years away in some areas.
As, over the coming decade, more models feature self-drive systems, and prices come down, there is then the issue of this technology spreading around the world, in countries that have lesser infrastructure to deal with it, worse roads and different environmental conditions.
Companies will want to sell their new cars far and wide, but the rest of the world, might not be ready. We, as individuals might not be ready, so be very careful before considering being taken for a ride.