The era of the fully autonomous car

I think it would be fair to say, at some point in our lives, we have gone through a phase (or many!) of wanting the latest technological gadget. When it comes to technological innovation, I’m split. As obsessed as I admittedly get, I have always held some level of cynicism about where all these new innovations will take us in the future. Perhaps it’s because of the way I have been brought up; whilst I laugh at the gadgets my Father was fanatical about when he was my age, I am completely aware, in 20 years time, my children will be doing just the same.

Now, when it comes to driverless cars, I’m not quite yet persuaded.

I don’t know about you, but I find the idea of being driven in a car, with no driver, somewhat unnerving. And despite the regulatory obstacles and scepticism from the public, driverless cars (or, robot cars) are fast becoming a craze amongst the auto industry- and they are doing everything they possibly can to show us why. These recently projected vehicles function through a combination of sensors and cameras; and most significantly, they are claimed to be safer and more efficient than today’s transport. At first, I couldn’t quite come to terms with the idea. My reaction was indeed somewhat similar to Jeremy Clarkson’s:

This seems to be the first problem with autonomous cars. I asked my friends what they thought, and the first response I received was, “I actually like driving my car! Innovation?! Technology is just making us lazy and unsociable.” Though this may seem somewhat extreme to some, I have to say, I completely agree.

‘Take the human out of the equation and our roads will be a lot safer’

Most of the reasoning behind installing these technologically driven cars seems to lie with 1) the fact the number of accidents will be significantly reduced; and 2) these will be easily accessible to all individuals, including the blind. Though I am not as enthusiastic as I perhaps should be, the benefits are undeniably impressive.

‘Cars won’t need to be so equipped because the most dangerous component on the car – the loose nut behind the steering wheel – could soon be eradicated’

Road accidents: 2012 statistics

  • There were a total of 195,723 casualties of all severities in road accidents
  • 1,754 people were killed.
  • 23,039 were seriously injured.

If, and only IF, Google are correct in stating driving autonomous cars will be much safer, then I see no reason for anyone from the public to object. However, it is within this line of enquiry that worries me the most, and you will see why towards the end of this article.

Needless to say, one advantage certainly stands out which I cannot dismiss, and that is the ease of use by the blind. Driverless cars give blind people the chance to ‘drive’ to wherever they want, whilst complying to road safety and regulation rules. The video below is worth a watch; Steve Mahan, a blind man, shows the level of simplicity when he ‘drives’ the Google car- and the joy on his face is all one needs to be persuaded.

‘Take the human out of the equation and our roads will be a lot safer’

From reading various articles online, this quote seemed to surface a lot:

‘As a safety measure, a back-up driver will ride along during tests who can take over in case of emergency’

Though the objective of this sentence is to create some level of ease, the first thing I felt was apprehension. In case of an emergency? Well then, what would happen in the case of an emergency and there was no back up driver? Or if the individual in the car was indeed blind? There are countless harmful outcomes that have the potential to happen, owing to the possibilty of not having been examined in the tests before. Technology can get completely out of our control- and in this case, where there isn’t even a driver, accidents have occurred. Interestingly enough, I came across an article today, reporting a driverless car accident that happened in Southern Australia.

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Most notably, there is little conclusive data on the news pages reporting this accident- leading me to raise the issue that when it is just technology at fault, who exactly can we question in order to find the source of the problem?

Fear of the unknown

Scientific and technology institutions are self governing- but when it comes to autonomous cars, we are the customers. There seems to be very little attention to the social implications of driverless cars. What about taxi drivers, coach drivers or even cyclists? Would all car service jobs then be eliminated? I would like to ask: if the driverless cars were to proceed as planned, what does this mean for humans as the autonomous beings? We must take into consideration the possibility of unintended consequences. If driverless cars are to be on the roads by 2020, then perhaps civilisation itself will no longer need humans to partake in other daily activities. Envisage a world where there are cars, but not one human behind the wheel.  And now, though this may seem irrational, imagine putting this change into slightly different contexts. Let me ask you, if you were told 10 years ago, that in 20 years time, there will be cars without drivers, would you have believed me? …No? I didn’t think so.

Though the concept was first introduced by Google three years ago, it is now starting to be universally recognised as the ‘future car.’ And whether we like it or not, regulators are moving, with ease, towards the production of it.

Although I have been rather sceptical of this new technological motor that is soon to enter our lives, I would like to raise the issue it is not the motor itself I am so against, it is more the rate at which technological innovation is proceeding. We cannot predict our future- and though we may try, we truly cannot say whether something out of the norm will or won’t happen.

Thank you for reading my blog!

– Shivani

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