Self driving cars. You’ve almost certainly heard of them, but if you haven’t, fret not, their name is their definition. Of course, things get more complicated, they are an experimental technology at the forefront of innovation and they’re quite literally a matter of life and death. They offer to both improve traffic flow, and prevent accidents. So the way I see it, self driving cars are inevitable. In some form or another, they’re happening. Therefore, the question of whether self driving cars should see widespread use or not is irrelevent, what I’m interested in is how they come into widespread use. Boiling it down to its simplest, there are three main players: drivers, companies, and government. I hope to look at how each deal with and respond to the notion of self driving cars.
How did I get so interested?
Youtube. Two videos in particular, and here they are, if you’re inclined to watch. I was always vaguely aware of self driving cars, but these videos made me sit up and pay attention because they made self driving cars and what they can do real, they made it personal. The traffic I sit in and the mistakes I make behind the wheel are at stake, and could be wiped away within my lifetime. Now I don’t see self driving cars as a novelty anymore, I see them as a small piece of science fiction becoming reality before my very eyes.
So, I’ve really been hyping up self driving cars and what they can do, but things get both messy and interesting when you take a look at what they can’t do. And boy are there problems with the things. It’s understood that self driving cars aren’t perfect yet, and so it’s pretty much common practice right now that self driving cars have a person behind the wheel to take over in an emergency. But New York Times author John Markoff points out the issue with this thinking in the aptly-titled article, “Robot Cars Can’t Count on Us in an Emergency.” In it, he discusses the ways companies such as Google and Toyota are having to contend with the distractable nature of human drivers. He looks at expert opinions, and presents the case that while fully manual driving and full automation would both be stable, the middleground of a car needing a human backup in emergencies isn’t, and that the opposite is preferable, a computer giving a hand to an occasionally distracted driver. The article ends on a very cogent point backed by a statistic, the question of whether people would even trust self driving cars at all. The article illustrates a clear two-way street of distrust between companies and drivers, where neither is perfect, and a solution has yet to be reached.
The government, of course, is necessarily involved in the issue of self driving cars, but before they can even get to specifics of how they should regulate them, they have to sort out who can regulate them in the first place. In the New York Times article, “U.S. Regulators Seek Public Views on Self-Driving Trucks and Trains” David Shepardson brings up the issue that drivers are under the purview of state government, while cars themselves are regulated federally. So when the two combine, who does the decision fall to? He says the decision is going to be decided on later this year, and points to a decision that already needs to be made, with General Motors trying to start a driverless ride-sharing service. And so another point of contention is developing. Companies are eager to press forward on self-driving cars, as the financial incentives for being the first into a new market are astounding, but the government has to wrap red tape around everything and ask important questions about safety.
I was absolutely on the side of the unmitigated benefits of self driving cars at one point, but even with an optimistic view of the long term, I’m now seeing the convoluted mess the short term holds. And the topic’s relevancy is undeniable. I never saw any self driving cars when I was younger, but new just walking out into the city, I see them consistently. Now is the time to be watching them.