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