This Is The One Problem With Driverless Cars We Really Can't Ignore
In the 1880s, Karl Benz produced the world's first automobile, and the timeline of the automobile saw drastic changes about every 20 years thereafter. In 1900, there were about 8,000 cars on American roads; by 1920, the number had swelled to 8,000,000.
Pedestrian accidents and deaths were never higher than they were in the early history of cars, and the public outcry about the safety of the pedestrians was fierce. Then, the advent of stop signs, lane markings, crosswalks and similar infrastructure made roads more and more safe.
After the advent of the Interstate Highway System and seat belts and a continued focus on safety, traffic deaths became even less common. In 2014, the US had the lowest amount of traffic deaths in 20 years and probably in its history since the early 1900s.
As safety improved, different problems took the spotlight. Traffic jams, commute times, road rage, urban sprawl and air pollution became focus issues. Still, there is never-ending work in terms of safety.
Currently, one of the bigger worries is distracted driving and other irresponsible behaviors. I and several acquaintances have been hit by cars as pedestrians, which is enough to lead a campaign to make roads safer.
Given that drivers, as humans, have a certain amount of incompetence and error, society was due for a drastic change.
Enter the saving grace: The newest change to the automobile, Google's self-driving car, unveiled in 2014.
Progress on driverless vehicles has been hopeful with only a handful of accidents in nearly 2 million miles, though the common use of such cars is probably 15 or more years away. In the meantime, there is worry about the transition period.
Technology hasn't been the biggest stumbling block so much as the moral, practical and legal questions of how to deal with autonomous cars.
How should the driving laws change? Who has the right to program a computer with instructions on how to respond in an accident? How can a person take over driving when a computer crashes? How does insurance liability work? Essentially, who is accountable for driverless cars?
Assigning responsibility for the safety of driverless vehicles is not easy. It could be the manufacturers', or the coders' or the designers' problem. However, such parties probably wouldn't keep working on the product if it was going to get them in trouble.
But, work as these groups do, some people worry autonomous vehicles do not have the driver instincts to react to split-second decisions.
From my understanding, the biggest worry would be the transition period in which traditional cars are still being driven alongside driverless cars. Such a worry has been more concerned with the potential for human error rather than error from self-driving vehicles.
But really, the differences between instincts and split-second decisions are moot for a car that makes calculated decisions based on its connection to itself and other cars' computers. After all, the Internet of Things is meant to connect information automatically without humans. If, say, an electrical sensor failed, the car's computer would be able to recognize an issue where the human could not.
These issues will be addressed soon enough. Technology has always solved its own problems, and policy makers have no choice but to allow the changes and adapt. Ethical or practical concerns can be most appropriately weighed when the technology is more fully realized and it is known how effective driverless cars are.
As in 1900, the infrastructures and the vehicles of the future are pretty hard to fathom. Still, it is apparent whether people want driverless cars or not, the day will soon come when people (and goods) are chauffeured by computers.
I am no fan of turning humans completely into robots, but it's hard to reject a technology that has had almost no accidents in 2 million miles.
There may be a few mishaps, but the prevailing beliefs are that the damage will be smaller than today.
Just think: There will be no more distracted driving accidents, no more drunk driving accidents, no more traffic jams and no more road rage -- just people getting to where they need to go with a chauffeur making all the decisions.
There will be speed bumps no doubt, but beyond that, the future seems to be a seamless flow of traffic with minimal issues.
Automated drivers will be an improvement over drivers who can't see well enough to avoid obstacles. Cars and trucks themselves will see the road regardless of conditions and not have to wait to make split-second decisions. Cars will anticipate other cars' reactions and react to them.
Pedestrians, cyclists and passengers alike will be able to go on about their business without being concerned much by the presence of cars. Crosswalks, stop signs and speed limits will hardly be necessary. Pedestrians will probably not even need to look to cross the street.
But, that's just a basic snapshot based on the world as it is now. Few people can envision the future. Chances are, maybe even in the next 50 or so years, cars won't even need wheels or roads. Transportation networks could be above towns. Pedestrians could go about their business with the roads themselves as sidewalks.
An important thing people can't account for is whether or not humans themselves will be connected to the Internet of Things. That would really be the icing on the cake. The interconnectedness would be better than human communication has ever been. We all would automatically know if a car had lost control to be able to avoid an accident.
While it's true an unmanned vehicle has no direct accountability and injured parties would have no fundamental right to recourse, it's also true there is no direct accountability if someone gets injured when the sidewalk cracks. Nobody sues the designer or the manufacturer of the sidewalk.
When cars operate as their own autonomous entities, there will be no need to sue. Conveyor belts, escalators and sidewalks all can injure someone. How can blame be assigned to those things?
The only fundamental right people will be losing is the right to drive. That is scary, sure, but changes with automobiles and their impact on society have been scary in every era. Not only have we all gotten past the speed bumps, but we have continued to make ourselves safer year by year.
Every indicator says everyone will be safer than ever before when all cars are connected and humans are out of the driver's seat.
Citations: The Daily Commute (Pepperdine University), FATALITY ANALYSIS REPORTING SYSTEM (FARS) ENCYCLOPEDIA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration), Google and Chrysler to Roll Out Self-Driving Minivans (OZY), Self-driving semi hits the road (CNN), SELF-DRIVING TRUCKS AND THE INTERNET OF THINGS (CPW Law), The View from the Front Seat of the Google Self-Driving Car (Backchannel)