It’s easy to get wrapped up in potential advancements our tech world is accomplishing — cloud-based AI services, reading genetic code to foresee any detrimental health issues, and zero-carbon natural gas to name a few. What’s most important about our developing technology is what it means for society: Is it a positive impact?
At the forefront of this discussion, we’ll find autonomous vehicles. This isn’t just Elon Musk’s crazy dream anymore, but an actual concept that’s being brought to life by Ford, General Motors, Waymo (Google), and many more. Now that there are so many big players involved, it’s difficult to remember where this all began.
In 2007, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) hosted the Urban Challenge to test driverless vehicles through a series of standard driving maneuvers. The cars were actually following traffic laws, parking, and making U-turns without a human driver. Enter: Google. Impressed with what the challengers concocted, the company snagged some of the DARPA contestants and launched its self-driving sector in 2009.
Years later, Tesla infamously joined the driverless race, followed by what now seems like everyone else (Uber, Volkswagen, Volvo, etc). But we have to ask: Will autonomous cars really benefit the public?
A closer look
On one side of the autonomous vehicles debate is the claim that self-driving cars are going to be safer than human drivers. This stems from research stating that human error is the driving force behind most accidents. Leaving driving to computers could result in savings thousands of lives within just years of implementation.
That’s not to say we’ll ever truly be accident-free — a fatality has already been chalked up to an emergency break failure. We also have to take into account that a majority of the test drives and autonomous deployments are in areas with consistently moderate, dry weather — Arizona, California, and Texas. Will they be able to perform flawlessly in rain, sleet, snow, or even natural disasters like Hurricane Florence?
Driverless vehicles are also aiming to tackle environmental issues. A huge sell for self-driving vehicles is the combination of carpooling while also eliminating the need for parking. A car would be able to pick up multiple passengers heading to the same location, reducing individual trips and added time circling the block looking for parking (which wastes a lot of gas, in addition to being wildly unsafe).
On the flip side, these computers could be looking at a massive energy bill. To power the car, internal sensors, cameras, external resources, and mapping information could contribute to 20% more greenhouse gases. If we were to make a full switch to electric driverless cars, then the overall environmental benefit would ultimately increase compared to our current vehicle landscape. But this wouldn’t happen overnight.
Which brings us to our final point: time. Time is everything to us — and yet, on average, we’re dedicating nearly 16 days each year to being stuck behind a wheel. Autonomous vehicles would give you back time to work, sleep, eat, or do anything your heart desires.
Where we’re going
How will these cars change our landscape down the road (literally and metaphorically)? Everything from gas stations to auto insurance to your local police could be altered by driverless vehicles, the way we may be taxed even! Parking lots would shut down allowing for real estate wars to take place all over the country, which would also mean that you wouldn’t have to worry about paying $30 to park your car for a couple of hours.
This could also change the ways our roads, buildings, and curbs would be designed — smaller lanes, designated drop-off zones, garage-free complexes… the list can go on and on. What we really need to make sure of before driverless cars hit the road is that we’re prepared for how this will have an impact on our streets.
There are definite benefits to this driver-free craze, but they also come with many concerns. People are worried about cars being hacked, service affordability, and containing accurate information for their software. You can’t expect technology to be fully up to snuff the first go-round, but the biggest issue humans will face is being able to let go of the wheel and enjoy a productive ride, trusting technology with their lives.