The future of driverless cars may actually be just around the corner if the events of last week are of any indication. On Wednesday, Sept. 14, Uber sent shockwaves across the nation as the American online transportation company tested their line of self-driving cars in public for the first time. As part of a research exercise, Uber had several self-driving cars pick up a specially selected group of passengers in Pittsburgh to see how the vehicles would fare in the real world (TechCrunch, “Uber starts self-driving car pickups in Pittsburgh,” 09.14.2016).
Obviously, the car wasn’t empty when it came to pick up the startled participants. Two Uber researchers accompanied each self-driving car to take detailed notes on how the vehicle performed and made sure everything was running smoothly. As many have already speculated, this event may prove that self-driving cars will arrive a lot sooner than we think. However, while the technology behind this development is indeed revolutionary and exciting, some of the benefits that experts claim self-driving cars will bring seem a little far-fetched. While the concept of a self-driving car sounds incredibly futuristic, this idea has actually been in the mind of car engineers for several decades. In 1939, General Motors announced their picturesque vision of the future where cars drive themselves around in “abundant sunshine [and] fresh air” (Wired, “Autonomous Cars Through the Ages,” 02.06.2012). In fact, Japanese engineer Sadayuki Tsugawa constructed the first truly autonomous car, which could process pictures of the road with its internal computer system as early as 1977.
Today, self-driving cars are less of a dream and more of an inevitability. In a recent report, John Zimmer, president and co-founder of Lyft, predicts that the majority of vehicles on the roads will be autonomous by 2021 (The Verge, “Lyft’s president says ‘majority’ of rides will be in self-driving cars by 2021,” 09.18.2016). Not only that, he also imagines personal car ownership disappearing in the U.S. by 2025. That’s less than a decade away!
In addition to these bold predictions, experts are also discussing the potential benefits to adopting a system of driverless cars. For instance, car accidents are one of the leading causes of death in America. According to the National Safety Council, an estimated 38,300 Americans were killed on the road in 2015 alone (Newsweek, “2015 Brought Biggest Percent Increase in U.S. Traffic Deaths in 50 Years,” 02.17.2016).
Experts say that having a machine drive instead of a human could significantly decrease the number of car accidents. A study done by McKinsey & Co. suggests that self-driving cars could reduce those accidents by up to 90 percent and save about $190 billion (GeekWire, “Self-driving cars could reduce accidents by 90 percent, becomes greatest health achievement of the century,” 09.25.2015). Not only that, the report also states that the amount of time saved if each commuter traveled using a self-driving car every day could add up to one billion hours. Experts imagine that all that time could allow people to work in their cars, significantly boosting productivity.
However, it is with this report that I feel that we may be over-glorifying the effects of a society filled with self-driving cars. Undoubtedly, this technology has the power to shape the future of transportation and change lives for the better. Yet, it’s important to remain realistic, especially since overexcitement could lead to the death of a technological milestone (remember Google Glass? Yeah, I thought so).
First, it’s true that self-driving cars could significantly reduce the number of casualties from vehicular accidents. I admit, it’s actually a little depressing to think that having the car drive itself is the only way to stop some of these accidents, especially in cases where the driver was intoxicated. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration, 27 people die every day as a result of drunk driving crashes, despite the fact that we are constantly being reminded how stupid it is to get behind the steering wheel when drunk (MADD, “Drunk Driving Statistics,” 2015). But we have self-driving cars doesn’t mean the roads are effectively safe.
In May 2016, a self-driving car manufactured by Tesla failed to apply the brakes when a tractor-trailer turned in front of it, ultimately killing the human passenger (NYT, “Self-Driving Tesla Was Involved in Fatal Crash, U.S. Says,” 06.30.2016). Incidents like these open an entirely new can of worms with questions about liability and fault. If self-driving cars will take over the highways and streets across America, we can’t let our guard down and treat this technology as infallible.
I also don’t buy the rhetoric surrounding the potential increases in productivity self-driving cars could yield. While I do believe self-driving cars will prevent numerous accidents, I can’t exactly wrap my mind around how they will increase productivity. The idea is that the average American spends so much time driving in a car that a self-driving car would free up all that time for us to get something done. The general logic seems reasonable, but this claim ignores several different factors ranging from motion sickness to the fact that most drives you take in your car last about 10 to 20 minutes.
Given those conditions, I have difficulty imagining the average person getting anything done while riding in a self-driving car. Most importantly, the experience of being in a self-driving car isn’t something that’s completely new and foreign. In fact, most people have experienced it many times in their lives: it’s called sitting in the passenger seat while someone else drives the car. Essentially, I imagine riding in a self-driving car might feel similar to being picked up by a parent from school. It’s convenient, but I’ll probably be on my phone the entire time.
Despite these reasons, there’s nothing wrong with being excited about self-driving cars. This is the technology of the future. Artificial intelligence programming has essentially found its way into every facet of our life. Building a car that can navigate the road safely and account for random variables like a kid running into the street is an incredible scientific development worthy of our praise. It’s a true testament to how we are single-handedly creating the future we had envisioned decades and even centuries ago. At the same time, we have to remain realistic with this new technology and account for any and all problems that may arise. After all, a lack of foresight could ruin any great invention.