Trying to explain the pros and cons of self-driving cars to the average American is kind of like trying to sell a staunch conservative on the benefits associated with marijuana legalization. You will more than likely have their undivided attention, but it’ll likely come with a healthy side of denial and nay-saying to go along with it all.
Just a decade ago, people would have looked at you like you were high on eight kinds of drugs if you claimed that autonomous cars were coming, and that these vehicles would be built by companies like Google. This is the kind of stuff you see in the cartoon world of George Jetson, or deep within the murky bowels of Los Angeles in the futuristic film Blade Runner. Hell, 10 years ago, the thought of us getting to the point where vehicles can drive themselves was laughable because what was pictured in the Harrison Ford sci-fi classic took place so far in the future — wait what? That film took place in 2019? Shit, that’s less than three years away.
So here we are, on the doorsteps of a new era, and the only thing we can do is sit back and wait to see exactly how well these autonomous machines work. Hell, it seems like every time we turn around there’s news about something that went wrong, or how politicians on Capital Hill can’t make up their minds as to whether this is a good idea or not. In the grand scheme of automotive evolution, it only makes sense that we have finally come to this point, and while it feels like we should be congratulating ourselves profusely for doing so in such a timely fashion, there are both downsides and upsides to be factored in.
Let’s focus on the positive side of things first: Consider traffic congestion. If cars drive themselves and monitor the vehicles around them, then in theory, there won’t be any accidents because everyone is going the same speed. And, computers don’t get drowsy like drivers do.
This would also be helpful for long distance hauls, so that cars heading the same direction can magnetically “link-up” to one another, like a train of cars that are bumper-to-bumper. Traveling together as a group means safer, more aerodynamic, and more efficient high-speed transportation, as members of the convoy depart and link-up freely. If a particular car in the procession needs to make a pit stop, all they have to do is press a button, the vehicle would split from the train of cars, and the gap would slowly close as the “train” moves toward its final destination.
Autonomous driving would also allow for safer, more productive ride-sharing, so hailing an Uber or a Lyft would save considerable time, money, and energy, all while lessening roadway congestion. Car owners would arrive at work, and then they could choose to program their Uber/Lyft app in order to cover a certain area while at work, leaving enough time toward the end of the day in order for the vehicle to return for the commute home. While it may sound like a far fetched science fiction scenario, it makes sense that someone would want to make the most of owning a self-driving car, instead of letting it just languish in a parking deck all day doing nothing.
It’s no secret that there’s a debate going on in America’s capital where lawmakers and senators argue about the safety issues associated with self-driving cars. Lawmakers don’t know how to regulate autonomous cars, and there are a lot of concerns about entrusting computers to safely ship entire families around, and holy crap is there a lot that could go wrong…
One of the biggest concerns is what choices will an autonomous car make in a life-threatening split-second decision scenario. Imagine you’re in the car with your family, autonomously going 70 down the interstate, when suddenly a trio of hammered winos stumble onto the highway. The car has two choices: run the inebriated men over with no remorse, or swerve, and potentially send you and all of your kin off a cliff. It’s decision time, and you have zero say in how it’s all going to play out. Which leads us to the next issue with self-driving cars: liability.
There are other concerns too because it would be a terrorist’s dream come true to remotely send hundreds of thousands of Americans to the ER or the morgue during the morning commute, all with the remote push of a button. Oh, and let’s not forget the fact that malicious hacking is getting worse, as everyone nowadays is more connected to the internet than ever before.
Finally, there’s the issue of system malfunctions and the repercussions that follow. If you hate it when your laptop acts up, imagine what kind of shit-fit you’re going to have when your car suddenly refuses to turn left one day and then won’t relinquish the controls so you can manually override the system. Things break, and on something as complicated and sensor-dependent as a self-driving car, there are a lot of crucial components on them that head south in a hurry. If you think diagnosing and replacing your ECM or hybrid battery was expensive, try paying out of pocket for the electronics that make a car self-reliable!
Last year we spoke with the man behind the autonomous cars you see in this article, Frank M. Rinderknecht of Rinspeed, and he adamantly believes that preliminary studies indicate that the elimination of human error yields a much safer car. But tests thus far have been done in incredibly small increments, and even though the Delphi Audi drove itself coast to coast without issue, it’s when self-driving cars become commonplace that the world will truly know whether they are safe or not.