Will You Ever Get Behind the Wheel of an Autonomous Car?

VW steering wheel

Every single day, more than 3,000 people lose their lives in car accidents across the world. Over the course of the year, that translates into more than 1.3 million fatalities related to the primary mode of transportation that many of us rely on to live our daily lives.

According to recent research, distracted driving is the number one cause of car accidents in the United States. Believe it or not, drivers who text while behind the wheel are a staggering 23 times more likely to get into an accident than their peers who keep their eyes on the road. Beyond that, drunk driving and speeding round out the top-three causes of accidents in America.

Let’s phrase that another way: The primary reason car accidents occur is not due to mechanical failure, but due to driver error—whether an error in judgment or an error in driving behavior.

Can Technology Keep All Drivers Safe?

In an effort to make the roads safer and provide drivers with a slew of other benefits—like a more relaxing commute, the ability to be productive on said commute, and much more—many technologists and car enthusiasts have been toying with the idea of autonomous (i.e. self-driving cars). If humans are the reason so many other humans die on the roads each year, why then should they have the privilege of driving if computers could be programmed to drive much more effectively?

In a perfect world, self-driving cars would provide these three benefits, among others:

  • Safer transport: Armed with radars, cameras, and the ability to communicate with one another via the Internet, self-driving cars could, at least theoretically, practically eliminate car accidents altogether. Autonomous cars are said to be programmed to be able to detect road hazards, weather conditions, and other cars (and how they’re being driven). These abilities will likely reduce the number of car accidents—and therefore fatalities—according to proponents of the technology.
  • Quicker transport: Because they’ll be connected to the Internet, self-driving cars will be able to access the latest traffic updates and road closures. Instead of being unaware and driving on the highway only to get stuck in dead-stopped traffic for a few hours, your autonomous car would be able to automatically reroute you, figuring out the best alternate roads to take to get you where you need to go.
  • Cleaner transport: Autonomous cars can also drive much more efficiently and effectively than you or I. Rather than slamming on the brakes when you look up after sending that super clever text to your buddy, the self-driving car would provide a consistently smooth ride, burning fuel as effectively as possible. Say goodbye to excessive idling or burning fuel pointlessly.

Not So Fast

While the promise of self-driving cars is certainly an exciting one, do you think you’d prefer to drive yourself from Point A to Point B, or rely on a computer to get you somewhere instead?

Consider this: Recently, a self-driving Volvo slammed into a group of journalists in the Dominican Republic. And in California, a recent report indicates that four out of the 48 self-driving cars in that state have been involved in accidents since September 2014. Google—one of the leaders in the autonomous car space—said its fleet had been involved in 11 “minor” accidents while covering 1.7 million miles since they first hit the road six years ago. All of those accidents, according to Google, were the result of human error.

Then there’s this: A recent report says that Uber, the app-based livery startup, is working in conjunction with Carnegie Mellon University on building its own fleet of autonomous cars. Should that come to fruition, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what that means for those who depend on Uber to make ends meet. Taking that thought to its next logical extension, are we ready for cabbies and limousine drivers to be out of work on a massive scale? Are we ready to lay off all of the nation’s truckers?

And even if the answer is “yes” to either of those questions, technology is supposed to make our lives easier and more affordable, and not having to pay truckers to haul a load from Texas to New York, for example, would likely result in reduced savings. But there’s still at least one more question: In the event a human was driving a car that crashed into a self-driving car, who’s at fault? Is it driver error? Did a programmer at Google mess up? Did the software crash, causing the car to crash, too?

Finally, there’s also the reality that all self-driving cars will be connected to the Internet. Like anything else, this connectivity makes automobiles susceptible to hacks. While car manufacturers will almost assuredly tell us that they’ve engineered their cars to be as secure as possible, in the age of mega hacks seemingly announced every few weeks (e.g. Sony, Anthem, Target, JPMorgan Chase, etc.), it’s pretty much only a matter of time before someone unlawfully gains access to someone else’s car. And how might such a scenario play out?

At the end of the day, the last thing we need is an army of self-driving cars commandeered by hackers. If that were to happen, we may very well find out that autonomous cars are ultimately no safer than their human-controlled predecessors.

Nevertheless, if all this doomsaying is getting you down, consider this last point: every significant technology breakthrough has come with a host of growing pains, from slow adoption to clueless bureaucrats. Driverless cars will almost certainly face their own share of hurdles, but the rewards could be beyond anything we can imagine. Imagine cars that can park and retrieve themselves in crowded cities. Imagine renting a moving truck and having it drive directly to you, and directly to its destination, without you ever getting behind the wheel.

Make no mistake: this is the revolution that will bring one hundred others. The only question left to be answered is, “Are we ready?”.

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