Autonomous Cars: Future of the Freeways or Fool’s Errand?

Mass acceptance of a new paradigm isn’t easy to predict. Few of us would have ever thought back in 2009 that people would jump in a car with a stranger or pay to sleep in someone else’s spare room halfway around the world. With millions of people embracing both Uber and Airbnb as part of their daily travel arrangements, we can see how once deeply-held beliefs can become passé relatively quickly. So, can we expect the same flood of acceptance with autonomous cars?

Of course, there’s much more at stake when we consider the driverless car revolution. Acceptance of ride-sharing and home-sharing puts the individual at some risk, with few possibilities for collateral damage. Switching over to the use of autonomous cars affects everyone on the roads (and sidewalks) and may require a complete overhaul of our driving infrastructure. So, how do we get everyone on board?

Bridging the Gap between Enthusiasm and Fear

The majority of us only hear about autonomous cars when there is an incident or accident. However, according to Forbes Magazine, there will be over 10 million self-driving cars on the road by the year 2020. This means higher levels of automation, essentially demoting the driver to “co-pilot” or even “backseat driver” status.

Over the past several decades, automatic transmission, anti-lock brakes, and cruise control have eased us into the realm of self-driving automobiles. These “Level 1 Autonomy” features have made our lives easier while leaving drivers ultimately in control for better or worse.

As we progress through the five levels of autonomy (well, there are actually six, but the first is zero, meaning no automation whatsoever), as established by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE), drivers are becoming more at ease with the idea of relinquishing the wheel altogether.

Surprisingly, Generation X and Baby Boomers are even more enthusiastic about being chauffeured by AI than Millennials. Whether this has to do with the fact that the elder generations were raised on the promise of flying cars or just that after decades of driving they’d rather take back their time is unclear.

What is clear, however, is that progress rages on regardless of our fears. After all, airplanes were once a terrifying, hair-brained invention that the majority of humans thought surely would never truly get off the ground.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Autonomous Cars

Traffic safety relies on a collaboration of technology, driving skills, and obedience to the rules of the road. Self-driving cars may prove to be far superior to human driving skills and judgment and less prone to mistakes.

But will designers and software developers be able to program morality and ethics into your car? Is human emotion a critical element in driver safety or a detriment? What about human intuition?

Advantages of Autonomous Cars

By programming autonomous cars to follow all traffic rules and speed limits, we can eliminate distracted driving, drunk driving, and even road rage inspired accidents.

High-tech sensors can detect the speed and distance of other vehicles, objects, and pedestrians far better than the average human. Onboard computers will calculate when to speed up, when to slow down, and when to stop. Built-in GPS guidance means we will always reach our destination in the shortest amount of time possible, a technology most drivers have already embraced.

What’s more, drivers can reclaim their commute time to become more productive or to simply relax after a demanding workday. One might accept a higher-paying position considerably farther from home when subtracting a grueling drive from the equation.

Arguments against Driverless Cars

Safety is the number one argument against driverless cars. From software crashing to electrical failure to outright hacking, there are many factors that could threaten the safety of you, your family, and others on the roads and sidewalks.

Safety isn’t the only concern when we consider the adoption of autonomous vehicles. Millions of jobs could potentially be lost, including school bus drivers, truckers, parcel delivery drivers, perhaps even used car dealers. After all, when self-driving cars become the norm, why would anyone want anything else?

Well-known car companies like Tesla, BMW, and Mercedes have already unleashed cars featuring self-driving abilities ranging from minimal driver involvement (Level 4 Automation). Full Level 5 Automation isn’t expected until the late 2020’s, but as the race to the finish line heats up breakthroughs and accelerated progress could surprise us all. So, buckle up!

Giles Kirkland is an automotive industry researcher and writer. He focuses mainly on the technological, scientific, and sustainable aspect of the automotive. As the world evolves faster than ever, he enjoys keeping track of all current developments and sharing his knowledge and experience with other motoring and technology enthusiasts across the globe. You can find him on Twitter and Facebook   

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