Look Ma, No Hands!

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While we may not be seeing a DeLorean turned time machine anytime soon, a vehicle with capabilities similar to those of KITT from Knight Rider isn’t so far fetched.

Alright – maybe there won’t be civilian vehicles with medical scanners, flame throwers, and tear gas launchers anytime soon… at least I hope not.  What we’re seeing already are cars equipped with sensors and computers that are able to scan their surroundings, process that data and make informed decisions on what actions to take without the need of any human input.  Autonomous vehicles are driving on our streets as you read this.

If you spend any time on or near public roads, you should care about the arrival of self-driving cars.  It’s not just a matter of your safety.  The industry proposes a list of benefits that could be brought about by the use of autonomous vehicles.  On the other side of the scale there are challenges being faced by the companies looking to usher in the self-driving age.  There are also some downsides that can be argued would be induced by this new technology.  Whether you like it or not, both the pros and cons of driverless cars are likely to affect a majority of the population in the relatively near future.

Industry leaders

Driverless vehicles have been developed and experimented with long before Google took an interest in the field. Thanks to the Digital Revolution and recent advancements in computing technology, we’re finally starting to see truly autonomous vehicles in headlines and on public roadways.  There are traditional car companies as well as tech giants and startups hoping to make driverless vehicles a reality.  Many of these companies hope to make it a reality as soon as the year 2020.  The tech guys are the ones to watch – it seems likely that even if they don’t produce their own vehicles, they’re the ones that will be licensing their tech to the car guys.

Google, who began their self-driving car project in 2009, has moved the project to a new company called Waymo in December of 2016.  Even more recently, Waymo has introduced a Chrysler Pacifica equipped with their own self-driving suite.

Then there are the ride-sharing giants, Lyft and Uber, who are also experimenting with autonomous vehicles.  In the same month that Waymo was unveiled, Uber announced some San Francisco users may be greeted by part of a self-driving fleet.  Shortly after their announcement, Uber was present with a cease and desist due to not having the necessary permits that would allow them to legally operate self driving vehicles on city streets.

Benefits

So what’s the big deal – why does it seem like there’s such a drive to push this tech forward?  The prime goals are accessibility for individuals that can’t drive, easing congestion and safety.  It seems like no matter where you go, the locals will tend to claim their area contains the worst drivers.  It’s true. You’re bad at driving… so am I.  One of the benefits of self driving cars is to ease traffic congestion.  A major cause of congestion is the human inability to accurately maintain a steady speed.  Take a look at the following video in which twenty-two drivers simply drive in a circle:

The smallest fluctuation in speed can cause a chain reaction that causes everything to fall apart.  Self driving cars would aim to solve this by better maintaining speeds and handling any fluctuations with reflexes faster than that of any human driver.  But it’s not just about getting from A to B in record times. Just getting to B is a big deal for a lot of people.  Self driving cars would open up a new world or possibilities for many individuals.  Grandma’s sight not so great but you’re sick of driving her to CVS? Throw her in the car, set the destination and send granny on her way.

The biggest goal here though is safety.  What if self driving cars could help reduce the number of injuries and deaths caused by vehicle accidents?  That would certainly be awesome.  Cars equipped with sensors that could accurately determine safe speeds and distance from other vehicles based on road and weather conditions could promise us fewer accidents.  Key word: fewer.

Challenges

Developing technology that would help lower vehicle accident rates comes with whole manner of obstacles.  For instance, many of the proposed benefits would require the majority of vehicles on the road to be autonomous.  It’s highly doubtful that there is going to be a vast number of early adopters.  There are definitely going to be individuals unwilling to trust a machine to keep them safe, especially in this technology’s infancy.  Even if there are people confident enough to leave their lives in the trust of a computer, there is the matter of cost.  With any emerging technology, high prices will always be a factor.  Tesla has announced that all vehicles in production are being equipped with hardware that allow for full self-driving capabilities.  This includes the Model 3, which starts at a base price of $35k.

While on the topic of money, what’s going to happen with car insurance? Will your rates go down if you own a self driving vehicle?  Should car manufacturers be held liable in the case of an accident? I don’t think it’s unreasonable to argue that without any human input, the technology itself would have to be found at fault.  Vehicle prices would certainly rise if our laws would require auto makers to deliver compensation to victims in the case of an accident.  Of course this would only serve to make the technology unattainable for a greater number of individuals.

Ready or not, here they come!

Self driving cars are inevitable.  However, I don’t think we’ll be seeing fully autonomous vehicles available to the public as soon as some companies are forecasting.  More testing needs to be done and new laws need to be made.  This will take time.  What do you think?  Is this all just a fad with a hefty research and development price tag?  Would you trust self-driving tech to keep you safe?

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