Technology has been rapidly developing for the past century, bringing not only new inventions but new lifestyles. As the internet revolutionized the way we communicate, automated machines changed the requirements for production and human labor. Although some form of automation has been implemented in vehicles already (like automatic braking, lane-shift assistance, and speed limit adjustment in cruise control), the reality of fully-automated cars has been set in motion and is causing serious discussion.
Regardless of the billions of dollars invested in perfecting autonomous vehicles, the technology won’t succeed in the consumer market unless people accept it. A study by Kelley Blue Book demonstrates that while 63% of the U.S. population think roadways would be safer with self-driving cars as the standard on the roadway, only 49% would prefer a safer roadway over having more control of their vehicle. So while a large portion of people agree automated vehicles are a much safer option, some fear still keeps them from relinquishing control. The researchers also found that 80% of people in the study said that humans should always have the option to drive and ~33% said they would never drive a “Level 5 Fully Automated (No human control)” vehicle. Though these numbers are disappointing for those excited about self-driving cars, the popularity of the technology is greater with the younger generations. Nearly 50% of Young Generation Z are comfortable with fully-autonomous vehicles.
Anyone who has driven in and around a major city for any significant time can tell you how bad many drivers on the road are. In fact, they might even yell it at you from their car window. But as technology advances and becomes more ubiquitous (like smartphones), the dangers of distracted driving only increase. According to the National Safety Council, nearly 30% of all drivers aged 21-34 said sending text messages while driving had no impact on their ability. The percentage of accidents said to have been caused by cell phone use was >10%, but that doesn’t take into account accidents caused by the indirect use of technology or other near-miss incidents. With the number of other causes of distracted driving likely to increase, the scary reality is that people overestimate their ability to drive while attempting to do other things. This can pose major threats to other drivers and pedestrians as technology makes the driving of human-controlled vehicles more erratic and less responsive.
While around 85% of people believe a human driver is safer behind the wheel than an autonomous car, new research is starting to suggest otherwise. A study at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute finds that the rate of crashes is significantly lower in self-driving cars than in human-controlled ones when controlled for types of crashes and those unreported. In crashes that were classified as Level 3 by the Second Strategic Highway Research Program 2 (SHRP2), which constitute most roadway accidents according to the study, human-operated vehicles had a rate of 14.4 crashes per million miles. Autonomous vehicles had 5.6 Level 3 crashes per million miles. While the researchers admit that human-operated vehicles have nearly 30 times more miles driven, it is highly promising for self-driving cars to show a significantly lower rate of incidents so early into the century. There are numerous technological features that can be implemented in autonomous vehicles in the future that will greatly increase their safety and reduce the number of accidents. One of the most important of these is the ability to communicate with other cars surrounding your vehicle. All the cars on a highway could send signals to each other in milliseconds to ensure that the surrounding vehicles know when one is slowing down, changing lanes, stopping, etc. This will not only increase the overall safety of all vehicles on the road but will decrease travel time and the amount of traffic that builds up.
Fully autonomous vehicles have been shown to be better at preventing accidents and saving lives. However, people differ on what a computer should do when an unavoidable accident is imminent. Unfortunately, the most probable outcome will be for the car to save the driver’s life, first and foremost. Jean-Francois Bonnefon, a senior researcher at the Toulouse School of Economics with a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology, explains why this is the case and the moral problems that are posed by fully autonomous vehicles.
An article in the MIT Technology Review illustrates the dilemma where the car is faced with the decision to either swerve and kill the occupants of the car or, say, 10 people who – for some reason – are crossing the street. As much as most people would say it’s an easy choice to kill fewer people, it is likely that their altruism would falter when faced with buying a car they know would choose to kill them in such a scenario. While the argument might be easier when deciding one life versus multiple, a large portion of accidents occurs between one driver and another. In the case of a head-on collision, a driver may feel a sense of guilt knowing they bought a car that “chose” the death of a pedestrian over their life. These are only a couple scenarios that Jean-Francois Bonnefon says will be determined by “moral algorithms” which dictate the decision-making process of the vehicle in life-or-death situations. Bonnefon states that market forces – what the consumer deems acceptable to spend money on – will be the main driver of what is deemed acceptable and which moral algorithms will become commonplace.
The question of fault is a huge legal question. In various different scenarios and types of accidents now, the driver is almost always determined to be the party at fault. With autonomous vehicles, the party at fault could be determined to be the person in the car, the owner of the vehicle, the car manufacturer, or even the programmer who designed the “moral algorithms”. More than likely car manufacturers will absolve themselves of any liability, but many consumers won’t sit well with being held responsible and paying for a decision that they, technically, weren’t responsible for. With insurance being the mess that it is already, it will only become more confusing trying to cover the various novel scenarios and problems automated vehicles bring. If they even cover self-driving cars at all, that is.
The future is unstoppable, and currently, that future is autonomous vehicles. But consumer skepticism and legal questions can most certainly slow it down. More and more research continues to show that fully automated vehicles are significantly safer than their human counterparts, but the technology will still take time to become popular as people ignorantly believe they are better drivers. Significant change to something so ingrained in daily life is understandably hard, but we have created technology that has drastically changed our lives for the better in other aspects. Self-driving cars are not something to be afraid of, but something to be embraced and discussed thoroughly in order to create the best technology possible and ensure the safety of the people who ride in them.
Featured image by Grendelkhan. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.