Is the World Ready for Driverless Cars?

Published: Apr 29, 2016 14:29pm EDT
By Tyler Hakes, for Konsume Technology

Please Note: This article was updated Apr 29, 2016 @ 02:29pm EDT


The hottest thing in the world of technology right now is not a gadget or a new piece of wearable technology. It’s an algorithm. Or, rather, a series of algorithms--ones that can scan, understand, and navigate roads.

Driverless car technology has taken Silicon Valley and the world by storm.

What seemed as a nearly-impossible feat of engineering just a few years ago has now come into focus as a disruptive technology ripe to shake up a number of industries that rely on drivers to transport and deliver products. It will also change the way many people live their lives.

Major companies from the automotive, technology, and machine learning spaces have all been making strides on their own brand of vehicles that don’t require a human to drive.

So why haven’t they hit the streets? In a sentence: We’re not ready.

The technology itself has now been around for over half a decade--Google, at least, has been working on its tests since the year 2009. Their cars have been well documented as being pretty good. In a report released in March 2016, Google’s self-driving fleet of 54 vehicles had put in almost 1.5 million miles in “autonomous mode” since inception.

Until this year, their test vehicles had been in involved in just 14 collisions on public roads, which were all shown to be caused by other drivers or Google employees driving the cars manually. In 2016, however, one of Google’s vehicles was--at least partially--at fault for a collision with a bus, which was caused by a strange set of circumstances involving road construction.

The accident was mostly harmless and resulted in only minor damage to the car. But it draws into question the ability for Google’s AI to properly navigate decidedly weird scenarios on the road--the kind that human drivers encounter all of the time in the real world.

There are also lingering questions about testing the vehicles in rain, snow, and ice, which can be difficult for humans, but can be unpredictable in a way that may cause a computer driver to malfunction or act unexpectedly.

But even with all of these issues resolved, simply making the technology a reality isn’t enough.

There are enormous social, political, and legal barriers that need to be addressed before the technology is ready for prime time.

A coalition is forming

Last week, it was announced that a number of interested parties--Google, Volvo, and Ford, along with ride-sharing services Uber and Lyft--have joined forces as part of a new coalition. The Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets is advocating for political and legal change to happen more quickly, which would allow self-driving cars to hit the roads sooner rather than later.

The new coalition frames driverless cars not as a convenience or a luxury, but as a matter of public safety.

“Self-driving vehicle technology will make America's roadways safer and less congested," said David Stickland, a former official with the U.S. National Highway Transportation Safety Administration who is working with the group, in a statement.

And there’s a lot of evidence to back up that idea. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, there were about 33,000 fatalities in 2014 on U.S. roads and a Stanford study concluded that at least 90% of traffic accidents are caused, at least in part, by human error.

Fewer humans behind the wheel means fewer deaths. At least that’s the theory.

In order to continue testing this theory, companies will need to roll out autonomous vehicles on a bigger scale. And to do that, there need to be changes to the law that would allow them to be put on the roads in more states and regions.

The legal and political framework for such technology is likely to be a big barrier to advancement. So far just 4 states and Washington D.C. have okayed the use of driverless vehicles on public roads. And if more states approve of such testing on the streets, relying on state-by-state regulation will create a nightmare of regulations for automakers in the future. Policy regarding these kinds of vehicles should be shaped at the national level.

That’s the battle the newly-formed coalition is planning to take up.

"The best path for this innovation is to have one clear set of federal standards,” said Strickland. “The coalition will work with policymakers to find the right solutions that will facilitate the deployment of self-driving vehicles.”

The group is right in that aim. No matter which way you slice it, the laws will need to change to accommodate technological advances. Many of the traffic laws and vehicle regulations that exist in today’s society will become obsolete at best, or obstructionist at worst, in an age of cars without human drivers.

What’s the point of requiring all cars to have a rear-view mirror if humans aren’t even watching the road anyway?

Even so, some of the things that members of the group are advocating may be seen as a step too far.

Google, for example, claims that their automated vehicles shouldn’t be required to even have a steering wheel or pedals. Their vehicle would be fully autonomous with no option for human control.

This seems a bit overzealous--especially for a company that has never mass-produced a vehicle. Mercedes, Audi, Ford, and other car manufacturers are all planning to offer cars capable of driving themselves, but their models will retain the tools necessary for a human driver to still take over.

Given the nearly-infinite possible combinations of driving conditions and the inability for Google’s team to possibly account for all of them, it seems plausible that having a manual override option might be in the best interest for all involved.

Even though the organization’s goal seems to be one of strong merit, there’s plenty of room for negotiation on what the final outcome should look like. But once you narrow down a legal framework for allowing self-driving cars to hit the streets, it gets much more simple to greenlight their manufacture and sale to the public, right?

Well, that’s probably not true.

Although there are still some technological and legal sticking points to resolve, the much bigger questions about these vehicles seem to be even weightier and revolve around philosophical and moral questions.

Unresolved questions about driverless car technology

Of the many lingering questions about autonomous cars, some of the most notorious are derived from a paper published by Bonnefon. Shariff, and Rahwan in 2015 titled, “Autonomous Vehicles Need Experimental Ethics: Are We Ready for Utilitarian Cars?”

Their paper explored the more-nuanced problems that truly-intelligent vehicles would have to face beyond simply avoiding other cars and navigating safely around road construction.

Human drivers are often forced to face grave situations with no clear “right” choice. Should a driver swerve to miss a child in the street if it means they could hit an adult on the sidewalk? These aren’t questions of right and wrong, they are philosophical dilemmas that drive deep into the core of the human experience. How can we possibly decide which option is right, let alone program cars to understand morality?

And for every one of these scenarios that we’re able to agree upon a correct conclusion, there are a million similar but different possibilities that follow. What if there were two children instead of one? What if the adult was pregnant? The moral implications of these problems seem just too great to be boiled down into a mathematical equation, or a set of “if” and “then” statements.

No matter how we grapple with these questions, the fact remains that driverless technology is coming, and much sooner than we could have ever imagined. But it won’t be flawless. And neither will the companies that develop the technology.

While their advocacy for swift change may be rooted in good intentions, it’s important for the informed public to balance that with a heavy dose of humanity, even if it means slowing progress for the sake of getting it right.


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