Marketplace on NPR was talking about self-driving cars earlier in the week as part of their Freakonomics series. It seems that while flying cars are out of the picture for now, a self-driving car may not be far off.
There are about 34,000 car deaths a year and many, many more injuries. Many of them are attributed to human error. But, according to the report, more than 80 percent of drivers consider themselves above average. I have driven the roads, people, you are not all above average drivers. In late March I was involved in a three-car accident when a man rear-ended my car on I-95 going 60-70 miles per hour, hitting me hard enough to crash into the car ahead of me. We were both stopped due to heavy traffic. He probably also considers himself an above average driver. My back for a few months would disagree.
See, I love the idea of a driverless car. Both for the reason I listed above and I love the idea of being able to turn on my car, tell it where to go, then read a book or something. That’s one of the reasons I love public transportation so much. I make sure I get to the train station and on the train, then I can do whatever I want until I get to my destination.
Of course, the safety argument only works if everyone is in a driverless car. Otherwise they could be like sitting ducks on a road full of idiot drivers.
The radio report said it could have an impact on the disabled and elderly as well. Allowing them more independence by using a vehicle without necessarily driving it. It could also drastically reduce driver fatalities. It would have an impact on drunk driving as well as distracted driving.
Really…it would be amazing.
But, would we go for it? The report talked about our American love affair with cars. And not just cars, but the romanticism of taking to the open road and driving on a long car trip. This is not a romantic notion I share, but I understand that other people do. The host Kai Ryssdal joked that they could take the steering wheel out of his cold, dead hands.
Cost is another issue to consider. Right now the cars are only allowed in test drives. Universities have courses set up to be as realistic as possible, with turns and unexpected hazards.But remember how expensive hybrid and electric cars were? They’re still extremely expensive. The government offers tax credits for many of them to encourage more people to buy. Given the technology that goes into a driverless car, could any driver, or any 99% driver, be able to afford it?
Speaking of the technology, it’s pretty cool. Some of the technology is already in use in cars with drivers, like emergency braking, lane-keeping, cruise control, auto-parking and other features. The cars rely on sensors, GPS, ultrasound and wi-fi sometimes. The cars can map out the road and respond quickly. In some models they can communicate with each other. There is a computer where the spare tire goes in some models.
As with all things technological, there is still a lot of risk. As good as computers are getting, there are still some things that require humans, even if we may not be as good at driving. The Economist article I linked to said the snow-covered roads and construction still pose challenges for the autonomous vehicles (they pose challenges for humans, too, I might add). Also, there is always a concern about malfunction and technology failure. My iPhone is amazing, but it still crashes sometimes. In addition, could hackers disrupt the workings of the cars? Would this be the next frontier for cyber-terror? One would hope that the cars would all come with some sort of person-override in case of emergencies.
Not to mention, the ever-present Skynet fear that creeps in when people talk about machines taking place of people.
It won’t be overnight and it will undoubtedly be a long, long time before these cars are on the road in any sort of significant manner.
I am at peace with the idea that flying cars may ultimately be limited only to the Jetson family. However, I would like to see autonomous cars in my lifetime. Think of all the reading I can do.