The Sedans Are Doing It for Themselves: Understanding the Driverless Car Movement

A self-driving Lexus, courtesy of Legit News.

When California Governor Jerry Brown officially signed legislation that integrates driverless cars into the state’s car community this past week, a furor ignited. Dissenters lamented that the technology would give undocumented illegals a free pass. Still others championed the move, citing self-driving cars as the ideal 21st-century solution to ineffective subways.

But the majority of those new to the conversation must be asking themselves, “What exactly is a driverless car in the first place?” Read this piece, and get caught up to speed on the self-driving debate.

Driverless Cars 101

Imagine a driverless car as your own personal, self-powered chauffeur on wheels. A driverless car, also referred to as an autonomous vehicle, is one that has been specially constructed to be driven through an on-board computer. This computer features a laser scanner and high power sensors that retrieve external data and send it back to the computer. Before beginning a drive, the passenger will input information relevant to her trip into the computer. The car handles everything else.

The seeds for automatic driving were sewn in the 1930s, a date which belies the thought that driverless cars are a recent phenomenon. (Designer Norman Bel Geddes was the first to present electric radio-powered cars at the 1939 World’s Fair.) Nevertheless, official backing by three state governments so far have vaulted the driverless car conversation to front page status.

Nevada, in June of last year, was the first in the U.S. to legally allow the testing of autonomous cars. The first driverless car (a Toyota Prius souped up by Google) was issued a Nevada license in May 2012. Since then, Florida and — in the flashiest gesture of all so far – California, home to the Silicon Valley and driverless vanguard Google, have also legally granted permission for driverless cars.

Experts posit that fully automatic driving will noticeably trickle onto our motorways by 2015. And the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) has predicted that driverless cars will dominate the world’s vehicle population by 2040.

Consumers can therefore anticipate the autonomous auto movement to impact their lives sooner than was once thought. But although their arrival is imminent, the question remains: what exactly will driverless cars to do improve tomorrow?

A Brighter, Driverless Future

Mirroring the current Presidential race, supporters and investors of driverless technology realize their power lies only in the votes of confidence they receive from real people; an impressive song and dance extolling the virtues of self-driving cars has thus resulted.

Safety remains the chief selling point to autonomous cars, and it almost every relevant article repeats without fail. Google, arguably the most important and well-known organization to the driverless movement, is also best-known for clarifying just how safe its vehicles have been so far.

The company has vetted its self-driving vehicles on California roads since 2010. On one trip, a Google car drove itself from San Francisco to Santa Monica along the twisty Pacific Coast Highway without anyone at the wheel and nary a hiccup. (To be clear, California law does require that a licensed driver be present in the car, should something go wrong.) The clincher: Google’s driverless cars have now logged more than 300,000 hours without accidents– that’s far more than the average U.S. driver.

Note: The temptation to elevate this fact into a triumphant declaration (“Driverless cars will be safer than actual human drivers!”) cannot be yet made without several more years of comprehensive testing.

Driverless cars also promise to allow a larger range of citizens to enjoy independent travel, including the blind and otherwise handicapped, as well as children. America, China, and Europe, the three biggest markets invested in driverless cars, are also cracking the whip on these vehicles’ fuel efficiency; they could require them to run completely on sustainable fuel sources.

Vehicle-to-vehicle communication, via MotorAuthority.

Automatic automobile technology doesn’t require any change to existing infrastructure (vehicle-to-infrastructure, or V2I), and the vehicles are also wired to communicate with each other while on the road (vehicle-to-vehicle communication, or V2V), streamlining their actual driving ability and potentially lessening roadway congestion by a large margin as a result.

Less traffic, less dependency on oil, potentially more jobs, more vehicle efficiency — it would seem as if driverless cars couldn’t put a wheel down wrong. But as always, a fair amount of controversy accompanies all this fanfare.

Insurance, Legality, and Ethics

The first question driverless detractors demand an answer to is a compelling one: who is at fault if (or when) a driverless car gets in an accident? No matter how thoroughly these vehicles are rigged for textbook flawless safety measures, an accident of some sort is inevitable. Legislation needs to keep pace with technological progress in this autonomous sphere, at the threat of continued confusion and injury to citizens. Being branded as “driverless,” these cars would seem to dissolve any sort of driver negligence. They would indemnify their passengers as innocent, legally throwing the blame for any accident onto the cars’ manufacturers.

Naturally, this heightened liability makes those manufacturers who would potentially take on driverless cars hesitant to dive in head first. Insurance professionals are no less sure of themselves in an equally gray area. It’s hypothesized that insurance companies will throw the brunt of protection cost on the manufacturers as well. The car’s human occupant may not get away scot-free, though: it’s likely that comprehensive insurance coverage will be mandated.

To the delight of many and horror of others, drivers’ licenses, and the registration and rigorous testing it requires to earn them, may become relics of the past if driverless cars catch on.

Driving under the influence would also potentially become obsolete; drunken partygoers could simply fold themselves inside their vehicles and sober up as their cars navigated the way home.

One can imagine local and state governments up in arms over all this. After all, speeding tickets and driving citations comprise a substantial bulk of their revenue streams. Responsibility would fall on the manufacturers, but it’s doubtful that they’d pony up to pesky fees every time their vehicles faltered slightly.

Driverless: A Sign of the Times?

Anti-lock braking system, courtesy of Honda Bob.

This discussion of liability and responsibility, and lack thereof, has understandably grown into a consideration of ethics: How morally responsible are driverless cars? How do they in turn reveal the morals of their passengers?

Remember that self-driving cars require the input of their users’ information in order to run. In the eyes of some consumer watchdogs, such a necessity constitutes a privacy breach, yet another clever means for advertisers and the government to increase their power over the lives of the public.

Returning again to the vehicles themselves, their impressive technology may also result in ethically problematic situations. Driverless cars are wired to safeguard themselves and their passengers. However, a human driver, error-prone she may be, may choose to damage her car if it meant that the safety of someone else was secure. Whereas a self-driving car may not stop to avoid a child running in the street, an actual person would. This is a crucial area for autonomous automotive engineers to consider.

Those still on the fence about driverless cars should also keep in mind that many cars currently use some form of driverless technology. Anti-lock brakes, adaptive cruise control, self-parking: all trendy features that don’t require the driver to control.

What is more, our culture has already proven more or less dependent on technology designed to do what we no longer want to. Think Siri, the ubiquitous and soothing-voiced personal assistant that graces the chic iPhone. Consider Dragon Dictate, eliminating the need for keyboards or carpal tunnel-plagued fingers and hands. Ultimately, it was just a matter of time before our culture’s craving for automatic convenience infiltrated our beloved automobiles.

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