Much has been reported and written over the past couple of years about “driverless” cars. These are vehicles which are given a destination and then proceed to drive there without any human intervention or action. The question which is being asked here is whether humans are really ready to surrender to the control of a computerized motor vehicle.
How Does It Work?
Simply, a driverless car is one which is completely controlled by an on-board computer. Using GPS navigation, the internet and receiving constant feedback from various sensors in and around the vehicle, the computer operates the car choosing the route and speeds necessary to reach the destination safely. The sensors “tell” the computer about other vehicles, pedestrians, animals and traffic signals. By being online, the computer also can choose to avoid traffic tie-ups and make decisions to alter the route on the way to the destination.
Comparable technology already is in use in modern aircraft. While pilots still occupy the cockpit, most aircraft are equipped with devices called “Flight Directors” which are computers which oversee all of the operations of the aircraft. These computers are fully capable of and do, on a daily basis, literally fly the plane from take-off to landing at the destination. In fact, the pilot now spends more time and effort entering the appropriate data for the computer than he or she does operating the aircraft, leading to boredom. This author will not speculate on whether this has increased membership in the “mile high” club or not.
What Are The Potential Benefits?
The possible benefits are enormous. Cars so designed can moderate their speed with other similar vehicles so as to maximize the smooth flow of traffic. The computer never becomes distracted by a crying child or incoming phone call or text. The computer does not fall asleep at the wheel. Through its interaction and programmed safety, vehicle collisions are minimized if not altogether eliminated. One can only imagine the effect upon insurance rates.
In addition, the potential for commercial users is enormous. Taxicabs can operate non-stop without having to worry about drivers taking breaks. Trucking companies will no longer have to worry about drivers being limited to a certain number of hours on the road which will mean faster shipping times. Another benefit is that the computers are unlikely to join the Teamsters Union and strike for better working conditions. (At least one hopes!)
For the humans, it will mean that they can text, talk and do anything they wish since they will no longer be required to give attention to the road. Instead of spending time looking for a place to park, the car can drop one off at the door and then go park itself and wait until summoned. This will make people much more productive in their work and allow them more personal time. It all sounds like a coming road utopia! Or is it?
Are We Ready For This Technology?
One of the great rites of passage for almost one hundred years has been the day a teenager gets their driver’s license. Everyone who drives knows what this has meant. It not only presages passage to adulthood, but is the moment that the teenager is able to exercise control to a degree never before. They become free! If cars become driverless, then this will disappear.
The parent will be able to direct the computer to avoid certain destinations or certain times of operation. The parent will always be able to tell where the car (and, ergo, their teenager) is located. This sounds good. However, likewise anyone with access to the proper codes will also be able to tell where the car is which may lead to misunderstandings and ugly surprises by spouses and significant others. It may also lead to employers who are able to keep tabs on employees as a condition of employment. (“Did you have your Doctor’s appointment at the golf course?”)
In short, like much of what has been seen with the advancements in information technology already, much more privacy and control will be lost. Is the trade-off acceptable or not? That is a question that each individual will need to answer and may even need to address with their government since this technology may become mandated.
Is It Going To Work?
As stated above, one of the advantages of this technology is that the car is connected to the internet and is able to obtain all the information necessary to make the trip as smooth as possible. Also, as stated above, the best existing analogy is the modern aircraft with their flight directors. However, these two things alone should give one pause before one jumps on the bandwagon of driverless technology.
One sees daily reports of computer hackers who invade the computers of retailers and other businesses creating havoc in everything from making websites go down to causing other untold mayhem in business. How much havoc could a hacker or group of hackers cause if they decided to hack into the systems and took control of all the driverless cars? What if they decided to direct all the cars to a single location in a major city? What if they changed the computer command to stop avoiding pedestrians and instead seek them out as targets? These questions must be answered before humankind surrenders to this technology.
The other problem which remains unanswered is the fact that everything that is manufactured can and occasionally does malfunction. These malfunctions could obviously lead to collisions because a human cannot intervene in timely fashion. Using the aircraft comparison, when part of the system fails and the rest is functioning correctly the result is tragic. For example, in February, 2009, a Turkish Airlines flight crashed in Amsterdam when the radar altimeter sent the wrong message to the auto-throttle causing a loss of power and crash less than two kilometres from the runway. [See Dutch Safety Board Report project number M2009LV0225_01, dated May, 2010]
The best conclusion at this point is that driverless vehicles will be coming soon and they will drastically alter the way we get around. However, people need to ask themselves and their government questions about how much of this new technology we want and are ready to have and how it will be implemented. Meanwhile, this author, when not wanting to drive, will just use his UBER ® App!