The future is now! The modern automobile has undergone a century of evolution to produce a machine capable of meeting faster and faster-paced standards. Humans are more mobile now than ever before, and the use of a car has become a necessity for the many rather than a luxury for the few. Cars signify freedom. With one’s hands behind the wheel, a person might go anywhere they please.
For teens and adults worldwide, a driver’s license is a proudly displayed symbol of burgeoning independence. This independence is wielded alongside the assumed responsibility of safe and attentive driving — qualities that are, ultimately, subject to human error. Enter the self-driving car.
The Introduction of the Self-Driving Car
The autonomous car seeks to remove human inattention from the equation. Without the requirement of human action, a self-driving car can transport its owner from one location to another in an efficient and safe manner using the power of AI and GPS technologies. Many cars on the road today already employ some form of artificial intelligence, from automatic braking and parking to adaptive cruise control.
The process of automation is not all-or-nothing, but rather is defined by a series of levels that detail the degree to which a vehicle uses automated science. The level of automation ranges from zero, entirely manually driven, to five, which could theoretically drive itself without any human intervention. The first serious integration of fully self-driving technology was unveiled in 1977 by the Tsukuba Mechanical Engineering Lab. This car drove using the recognition of markings on the street, but it was slow, reaching speeds of just 20 miles an hour.
Modern automated vehicles promise greater speed and efficiency. Google’s self-driving car project, first announced in 2009, was intended to revise road safety and cut traffic deaths. Since then, the project has rebranded itself as Waymo, and the company hopes to introduce its first fully automated cars to American streets in the near future.
While awed by the science-fiction concept of a driverless car, the public has remained skeptical of its future within the transportation industry. Critics argue that the AI technology needed to accomplish such a monumental feat is still miles away from complete functionality and that the rushed release of an autonomous car for publicity’s sake could provoke untold damages. 56% of Americans reported that they would not feel comfortable in a self-driving vehicle, and 75% say they would “much rather drive a car than ride in an autonomous car.”
Though the self-driving car is considered exponentially safer than its human-driven counterpart, its implementation is still imperfect. News reports of pedestrian fatalities do little to put the public conscious at ease, and despite the best efforts of automated car companies such as Zoox to assure the safety of their products, many remain unconvinced.
In 2018, an Uber vehicle testing a self-driving program struck and killed Elaine Herzberg in what was considered the first recorded death of a pedestrian via an Uber car. The driver assigned to monitor the car was reported to have been inattentive at the time of the accident, though some felt the problem originated from a deeper source.
Allegedly, the automation did not have “the capability to classify an object as a pedestrian unless that object was near a crosswalk,” and moreover, the emergency braking system was disabled, forcing the driver to brake if and when necessary. Automation was not, in this case, enough to override human error, and the inability to recognize a pedestrian outside certain situations indicated an alarming lack of oversight.
Studies show that 9 out of 10 accidents occur due to error on the part of the driver. However, only about a third of these incidents are estimated to be preventable by self-driving technology. The AI used by the cars may, as in Uber’s case, be unable to perceive hazards as genuine and react accordingly, and it may not be able to make split-second decisions the way a human might.
Though self-driving technology may be a safer option than the traditional automobile, many are unwilling to make the gamble until significant improvements are made to the relevant artificial intelligence.
Computers are prone to compromise, and self-driving cars are no different. Hackers have already demonstrated the ability to cut transmission to a car remotely, and no self-driving car would ever be completely impossible to hack. No computer system is completely safe from outside influence, especially at the level of complexity an automated car boasts.
The U.S. Department of Transportation has published a comprehensive policy detailing the regulation of automated vehicles, which includes the close monitoring of the manufacture and certification of the cars. Despite this, it’s impossible to completely eliminate hacking from the equation — a factor that potential customers should carefully consider before purchasing their vehicle.
Some also wonder whether the rise of the automotive vehicle could provide easy fodder for terrorists. Driverless cars could pose a serious homeland security issue, considering their susceptibility to hacking. To avoid this, manufacturers may have to ensure the security of their vehicles through additional methods not present in the conventionally driven car, such as the implementation of verification methods accessible to the car’s owner alone.
Skeptics also question the use of surveillance within automated vehicles. Self-driving cars need to communicate with each other in order to locate obstacles and position themselves on the road. This automated communication is a concept present only in these cars; it is not needed in a traditional, driver-controlled vehicle. The direct broadcasting of one’s location has been, historically, a subject of distrust — similar concerns are seen with the use of location tracking in cell phones. The self-driving car ultimately cannot promise any convincing protection of privacy to those already distrustful of its premise.
One of American society’s most common causes of premature death, the automobile accident, may someday become a thing of the past. Self-driving cars could save thousands of lives, and they may cement themselves as a staple of transportation in the future.
Today, however, the technology needed to accomplish complete autonomy is too underdeveloped to offer safety and efficiency to its passengers. Until that day, human judgement will have to make do.