The Dark Side of Self-Driving Cars Will Make You Think Twice Before Getting in One

Sure, self-driving cars sound convenient. Who doesn’t want to sit back, relax, and text to your little heart’s content while your car does all the work? Not so fast. As the industry progresses, some challenges have revealed themselves. Some of the dangers and possibilities that come with fully-automated vehicles might shock you.

They will likely save space in cities

Self driving car

Uber is experimenting with self-driving taxis. | Angelo Merendino/AFP/Getty Images

Financial institution UBS told The Economist that urban car ownership will fall by 70% by 2050, partly due to self-driving taxis. Today, cars sit unused 95% of the time. Consequently, a widespread switch to the “robotaxis” would save parking space. Roads will likely get less crowded too, as fewer people opt to own and pilot their own vehicles.

Next: They will also help the environment for this reason.

Fewer emissions make self-driving cars greener

Self driving car

They will help reduce greenhouse gas. | Olivier Le Moal/iStock/Getty Images

Because self-driving cars will run on electricity instead of gas, they will also reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Since they park themselves, that pesky space left by too-cautious human parkers will soon get filled. Instead of driving to stores, people can call an automated car to bring goods to them, and the elderly or disabled can use them for personalized transportation, too. In many ways, automated driving and parking will revolutionize cities and even more rural areas.

Next: However, all of that convenience comes at a price.

Automated vehicles can spy on everyone

A Google self-driving car is displayed at the Google headquarters on September 25, 2012 in Mountain View, California. California Gov. Jerry Brown signed State Senate Bill 1298 that allows driverless cars to operate on public roads for testing purposes. The bill also calls for the Department of Motor Vehicles to adopt regulations that govern licensing, bonding, testing and operation of the driverless vehicles before January 2015. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

They have cameras everywhere. | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Self-driving cars will come with a multitude of cameras and sensors, enabling them to “see” hazards and operate effectively. Those cameras will also record everything that happens in and around them. When a crime occurs, the police can ask nearby cars if they saw it happen. While that may help the authorities solve crimes faster, it comes at a price for the bystanders and their privacy.

Next: Your personal data will “help” your car, at a price.

Cars will know everything about riders

They need access to a lot of information. | Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images

In order for self-driving cars to work, they need access to data — lots of it. That includes items like maps and GPS data, but they will also be able to tap into your own communications and preferences. For self-driving cars to rally cater to their users, they will need access to more and more granular data, and lawmakers have not yet clarified exactly how public that data can become. In the future, self-driving cars might comb your email, search history, calendars, and even online conversations to provide you with “suggestions” to make your life easier.

Next: All of that convenience comes at a cost.

No one really knows yet how companies can use that data

Driverless car

They got a response that wasn’t very clear. | Mark Wilson/Getty Images

When Consumer Watchdog Privacy Project Director John M. Simpson asked Google executives about user privacy, he essentially got a non-answer. “Would you be willing to protect driverless car users’ privacy in the future, and commit today to using the information gathered by driverless cars only for operating the vehicle — and not for other purposes such as marketing?” he asked.

“I think it’s pretty early in the game with driverless cars … to have a lot of rules saying, ‘thou shalt not do X, Y, and Z, with the data,” Google’s chief legal counsel David Drummond answered. “It’s a little early to be drawing conclusions which would, in a lot of ways, reduce innovation and our ability to deliver a great consumer product.” In other words, no.

Next: All of that data-sharing could lead to a police state situation.

Self-driving cars can restrict user freedoms

A self-driving car traverses a parking lot at Google's headquarters in Mountain View, California on January 8, 2015.

It can restrict where drivers can go. | Noah Berger/AFP/Getty Images

If human-driven cars become banned and passengers must rely on self-driving cars, that means riders are essentially at the mercy of their cars. That could lead to increased segregation and discrimination.

“Dedicating roads to autonomous vehicles is necessary to achieve the most benefits from autonomous vehicles,” wrote Jeffrey Funk, a professor who studies emerging technologies. “While using autonomous vehicles in combination with conventional vehicles can free drivers for other activities, dedicating roads to autonomous vehicles can dramatically reduce congestion, increase speeds, and thus increase the number of cars per area of the road. They can also reduce accidents, insurance, and the number of traffic police.” However, it also restricts where drivers can go.

Next: Some ethically sticky situations could arise, as well.

Self-driving cars will have to make tough ethical choices

The car has to solve ethical dilemmas. | Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Imagine a child and a group of adults step into the roadway while your car drives you to work. It must hit one of them, so the car has to make a choice. Which does it choose? Ethical dilemmas like this one have stymied developers, so far. “With many millions of cars on the road, these situations do occur occasionally,” said Leon Sütfeld author of a study on ethics for self-driving cars.

The study suggests that developers can program cars to model human moral behaviors involving choice. “Most people …  would save a child over an adult or elderly person,” Sütfeld said. “We could debate whether or not we want cars to behave like humans, or whether we want them to comply to categorical rules.” So far, the jury remains out on that decision.

Next: This government body actually looked at the issue.

Does human behavior determine their worth?

Self-driving car

The cars won’t be taking age into account. | chombosan/iStock/Getty Images

The German Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure released a report that defined 20 ethical principles for self-driving cars. For example, the ministry’s report decided that a child who runs onto the road carries more blame  than an adult standing on a footpath. In addition, it considers taking age into account unacceptable.

Peter König, a study co-author, believes delving into these questions creates more problems than it solves. “Now that we know how to implement human ethical decisions into machines we, as a society, are still left with a double dilemma,” he said. “Firstly, we have to decide whether moral values should be included in guidelines for machine behavior and secondly, if they are, should machines act just like humans?”

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