Are autonomous vehicles driving us to disaster or steering us into a safer future?

For nearly a century companies have been investigating the use of self-driving vehicles, however it is only recently that it has been recognised as a real possibility for the future of personal transport. Driverless vehicles seem to be the future of the vehicle industry if Google and Tesla are anything to go by, but does society want it? Do they need it?    

Although there is some way to go before vehicles become ‘fully autonomous’, advances are being made at an astounding rate.

For Autonomous vehicles

Autonomy in vehicles already exists in ways that you may not associate with ‘self-driving’ cars. These features include anti-lock brakes (ABS), cruise control and traction control. These methods are tried and tested and intervene when required without driver input in order to make driving safer. In 2011 it was reported that approximately 90% of accidents were down to human error. Why not take it to the next level by removing the possibility of human error and make cars ‘fully’ autonomous to become ‘fully’ safe?

Removing the necessity for a driver can lead to numerous other advantages alongside improved safety. For one, the technology would provide a method for incapable people such as the elderly, visually impaired, intoxicated, under-age or unlicensed to get around unassisted. Not only does this allow people to maintain their independence for longer, it also removes the very real threat of drunk drivers. In 2014, there were over 5,600 drunk driver accidents reported in the UK.

Driving for a long period of time is often seen by many as wasted time. Allowing people to be passengers rather than drivers means they can be more productive in terms of getting things done such as phone calls, emails and social media. The average commuting time in the UK is approximately 55 minutes per day however there are over 880,000 people commuting for more than three hours per day! Could autonomous vehicles mean the working day begins the minute you get in the car? If so, this means you would start your commute at 9am and arrive home at 5pm having still done 8 hours work.

Forgetting work, think about other activities. Do tasks like taking the car for maintenance or picking someone up really require a driver to be present? Drivers are not needed on journeys like this so can therefore allow them to stay at home or work and carry out other tasks. This could also lead to increased car sharing, it would give everyone access to a car without the need of a driver.

Removing the need for driver controls, such as a steering wheel and pedals, opens up a whole new world for automotive design and effectively gives engineers a blank canvas to work with. This would lead to more free space available inside vehicles, meaning more people would potentially be able to fit inside the space that currently only allows 5 passengers.

Then there is the legal side of things, a network of autonomous transportation would virtually eliminate the need for traffic police therefore allowing law enforcement to be used more effectively elsewhere. Autonomy would enable lower insurance premiums as driving becomes safer and would make road signs redundant as the route will be navigated electronically.

What is there not to like? A world of no crashes, cheap insurance, privacy and all whilst on Facetime to your mum!

Against autonomous vehicles

Autonomous vehicles are fast becoming part of daily news, and not always for the right reasons! On 14th February 2016 a Google self-driving car collided with a bus whilst trying to avoid a sandbag in the road in Mountain View, California. Prior to this altercation, Google drivers have had to intervene 13 times between September 2014 and November 2015 to stop their self-driving cars from crashing whilst testing in California. Not a very good starting point for a technology that is meant to be making driving safer.

Following on from actual accidents, let’s look at potential accidents. If vehicles are destined to be autonomous, who is going to be responsible when lives are at risk? If an autonomous car encountered a child in the road, it’s unclear the decision that would be made by the technology. It is likely that the vehicle will swerve away from the obstacle and avoid it. Consequently, the vehicle could veer into a roadside obstacle, (e.g. tree or wall) endangering the lives of the passengers.

Lack of privacy is also a major issue. Each vehicle will be continuously sending out GPS and other Cloud data so it seems as though personal vehicles won’t be so personal at all. The reasons for collecting data are understandable; the car will always want to self-learn as well as provide data to other vehicles. But those who had issues with the NSA and GCHQ spying on people will almost certainly have issues with autonomous vehicles ‘spying’ on them. All of this Cloud data, as well as the technology itself,  is also vulnerable to hacking. Researchers at the University of Virginia found it was “relatively easy to remotely hack into a driverless car’s control system” and that increasing security would be costly for developers. This could potentially be a direct threat to life with hackers attempting to crash vehicles on purpose.

Currently, Google are using adapted Toyota Prius’ for their autonomous car testing at a cost of $320,000 for each vehicle. Although these are hybrid cars (so have lower CO2 emissions than normal petrol engines), they do still run on harmful fossil fuels. An alternative suggestion for the future of personal transport would be to invest money into the development of car technologies that run on renewable fuels. This would undoubtedly secure a longer and more sustainable future for the automotive industry as a whole.

“What if it could be easier and safer for everyone to get around?” – Google, 2015, Is this really the case?

47: Richard Mills, AyoOluwa O Adebayo, Hugh Williams, Sanjay Patel

 

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9 thoughts on “Are autonomous vehicles driving us to disaster or steering us into a safer future?

  1. I am for autonomous vehicles. Thier development brings with it many advances in technology that will support driver / passenger / other vehicle and pedestrian safety well in advance of the 1st official autonomous vehicle. The examples in the FOR comments above demostrate whats already been accomplished and help reduce road related incidents, even though there are ever more cars on roads today. One key issue is speed, the usual driver will exceed the speed limit almost constantly creating risks, this issue could be reduced dramatically with the aid of computer driven vehicles. The FOR campaign can also support better road layouts, transport lanes and future road construction through the use of navigation (GPS) data feedback and analysis. Fianlly it can support stolen vehicle management and aid police or transport agencies gather data to support improvements in services or infrastructure.

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  2. Ultimately, autonomous cars should be safer than human drivers, as they react quicker and do not take reckless risk, drink, talk on mobile phones etc. However, I do not believe that cars with no manual override are in our interests, as no system is infallible, nor do you want the vehicle to get stuck in a right turn at 70mph if you suffer an electrical fault and you are unable to stop it driving off a cliff, or in to some people, for example.

    The obvious downside of that approach is that you will never get a car that can truly be autonomous as you will require a fully qualified driver to be present, and the will preclude certain disabled people from ever enjoying the freedom and convenience that they would bring.

    Increased autonomy is the way to, go I’m not sure total autonomy will ever be reached, nor is desirable.

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  3. Very interesting subject!, I think in the whole that fully aided driving will be the way forward, my long term theory would be that it will reduce accidents, reduce traffic congestion possibly, along with making traveling more accessible for everyone, the down side of this is that I would think that the costs for this will be initially beyond most peoples budget (like today the ratio of current people that own a brand new / couple of years old car today), along with the culture change to us relying on artificial intelligence controlling a part of your life, which leads on to what else will artificial intelligence control in the future

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  4. After reading the ‘For’ argument, I was thinking this has to be the future. If 90% of accidents are due to Human Error then surely taking about the Human controlling the vehicle eliminates this. But then you think how long will it take for the technology to reach the level required to ensure total safety? Will a computer programme always perform the correct action? I guess a significant amount of investment would be required on our road infrastructure to enable this technology to really take off. Also the initial cost of the vehicle would not make it a feasible option for a majority of the population, unless subsidised by the Government in some way. A very interesting argument.

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  5. As a not too confident driver I would be quiet happy to sit in an autonomous car but agree the legalities of where the ultimate responsibilities lay will be a bone of contention. Although surely every passenger of a vehicle is at the mercy of the vehicles driver anyway, human or automation, so no matter what/how many safe guards are in place there will always be the possibility of human/software error. The answer to speed safety is surely a simple one, manufacture cars that are incapable of travelling above the 70mph maximum speed limit or have a built in satellite system which automatically slows the car to the relevant speed of that particular stretch of road. So for the moment I think an integration of the two, human with AI assist is adequate but I do believe in 50 years or less driving your vehicle will become a novelty and not the norm.

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  6. I would definitely lean towards the ‘For’ argument personally. As a big advocate for innovation and technical development, I think AVs will inevitably find their way into our lives. There are obviously glaring privacy and moral issues to consider, however like all modes of transports beforehand their production costs and relative safety will improve with more and more research and development. I don’t think all vehicles in the future will be driverless, however I think it will ultimately be cheaper and safer to own an AV.

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  7. I lean towards the against argument. The idea of being driven around and not being in total control is quite a daunting prospect. I do however think there is a place for autonomous vehicle features in everyday life, for example; self parking cars. These features aid the driver whilst he/she is still in complete control of the speed in which the car is parked. In my personal opinion, you can never beat human instinct for danger / dangerous situations. Automated vehicles would not be able to predict and see all dangers. Admittedly humans cannot see all dangers however, a human has the ability to predict danger with very little information at their disposal, for example. If a car in front is driving dangerously, how would an automated vehicle be able to understand the situation? A human would slow down and back off or take another route. Would an autonomous vehicle do the same or wait for something to happen and then react? A very interesting argument and one which I think will go on for many years to come.

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  8. This is an interesting subject.
    Certainly there are some civic/utility vehicles such as road sweeps which are begging for automation. Although it could be argued that this would also mean job losses for those who make their living from driving.
    On the other hand there are many owners of private vehicles who would take exception to the loss of freedom that automation would bring.
    I think that the task for the automotive industry is to introduce automation in vehicles but give the users the illusion of control. This is already well underway. After all, we already drive cars which can automatically control the transmission, throttle, brakes and steering.

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  9. A very interesting piece, and a subject that will be debated for a long time I think. I believe there are distinct advantages to driverless vehicles, not least in terms of cost, however as a regular road user I am not convinced of the practicalities of driverless vehicles on public roads mixed in with regular traffic. I do, however think there is considerable potential for the use of these vehicles in dedicated lanes/roadways for the transport of freight, and as a public transport solution in congested urban areas.
    Rather than investing in the use of driverless vehicles on public roads would it not be worth better investment in existing transport networks – rail and tramway in cities where driverless vehicles are far less likely to encounter the public?
    There have been a number of interesting observations already made, but the overriding message that comes across to me is the perceived loss of control and potential dangers of driverless vehicles. There is still a lot of research to be done before their use can be of commercial benefit.

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