The idea of an autonomous car that drives itself has been around for decades. It stands as a symbol of the future the same way that hoverboards or self-lacing Nike high tops do. But with the recent sad news that one of Uber’s fleets of driverless cars was involved in a deadly collision with a pedestrian, we need to look at whether the current breed of driverless cars are part of the future or just a fad.
Up until this point, self-driving cars were receiving a lot of positive press, as well as a healthy dose of scepticism. There were a number of reasons given for why a car that drove autonomously would be good for society at large.
Prior to the deadly crash this week, the primary reason given for the need for driverless cars was safety. An autonomous, self-driving car removes the possibility of human error from driving. Furthermore, they remove some of the risk of driving under the influence, and would drive down the number of annual fatalities that arise as a result of it. As they don’t have the same emotional responses and propensity to make mistakes as humans do, ideally they ought to be safer.
Another principle idea behind autonomous cars is that they free up more time which would otherwise be spent driving. Without having to concentrate on the road, you could free up a lot of time on your commute to work. While some people enjoy driving, there’s no denying that traversing the same bit of road every day gets tiresome; a driverless car frees up your hands for some much needed Pokemon time! Or, I mean, alternatively you could talk to your friends or family or read a book… Anything except driving really.
In theory, a driverless car would leave you at your destination and go to find a place to park by itself. This would free up a lot of time that you’d otherwise spend trying to park in congested areas. This puts an end to parking tickets, dinged up cars and the driving in circles while waiting for a space to make itself known.
There are a number of other good things to be said for the driverless car, such as its ability to counter road rage and poor driver behaviour. In our recent blog about vehicle crash statistics, we mentioned an upswing in vehicle crash fatalities in recent years. Perhaps once it’s properly fine-tuned, the driverless car would act as a way around this? Meanwhile, let’s take a look at some of the more negative aspects of self-driving cars.
While driverless cars in the future, once they’re better refined, will likely be much better than they are now, as it stands, there are a number of flaws inherent in self-driving vehicles.
While in theory, the autonomous car is meant to improve safety by up to 90% and is set to save a quarter of a million lives per decade, 2018’s iteration of the driverless car is not yet living up to these promises. In fact, one in twelve driverless cars in California were involved in accidents in the space of 6 months. Furthermore the recent fatality in Arizona isn’t the first to be caused by a self-driving vehicle. Back in July 2016, a Tesla driver was killed while watching a Harry Potter movie in his autonomous car. As the owner of a fleet of vehicles for example, these aren’t statistics that inspire much confidence.
Another primary complaint about driverless cars is that they will cause a huge loss of jobs across many sectors. Deliveries, taxi drivers, truck drivers: These are all fields which would see huge job losses once we start seeing the widespread switch to autonomous cars. While it would also cause an upswing in the need for new jobs to maintain the driverless cars, there’s no denying that in the fleet management business, these results are pretty damning. With Full Scale Luxury Communism a fair way off, there’s no denying the negative effect the automation of driving will have on working people.
The problem with the increased connectivity of everything (think smart fridges, smart homes) is that it gives hackers and people with malicious intent more ways of getting into your network. The same could well be true of driverless cars. Ransomware, where hackers take control of something and demand money to get it back could be disastrous if applied to vehicles. Even more disastrous would be if driverless cars were hijacked to kidnap their occupants or to intentionally crash. Furthermore, even without tech-savvy, autonomous vehicles can make life easier for criminals. The FBI has conducted a study on how much more dangerous criminals could become once they no longer have to watch the road and shoot at the same time.
Finally, we’re going to take a look at the stranger side of autonomous cars. Namely the idea of ethics. In ethics, there’s a thought experiment called “Trolley Problem”. The thought experiment is normally phrased something like:
There’s a runaway trolley barrelling down the railway tracks. Ahead on the tracks are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance away next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. However, there’s one person tied up on that track too. There are two options
1. Do nothing, the trolley kills the five people on the main track.
2. Pull the lever, the trolley diverts and kills the person on the other track.
The idea of this – in the most concise possible way – is that you can save the lives of 5 people and kill one, but then you will be a participant in the death of the one person… it’s a difficult thought experiment with no right answer. When it comes to driverless cars, there’s always going to be unavoidable accidents, even when the technology is perfected, and the car itself is going to have to come to a decision about who to save. Should the car act to minimise the loss of life, or should it always protect the inhabitants of the car at all costs?
While, in theory, a lot of people would say that they would sacrifice themselves (and even their loved ones) to save the greatest number of people, realistically, it seems unlikely that a lot of people would buy a vehicle that’s programmed to sacrifice its owner. This article explains the relation between the programming of driverless cars and the trolley problem quite nicely.
Ultimately then, for fleet management, driverless cars are a mixed bag. They have the potential to increase driver productivity by allowing them to do paperwork or other tasks during the journey, but their rudimentary nature at the present time when it comes to safety means that the switch to an all-autonomous fleet is a long way off.
By the time we begin to see a wholesale switch to driverless cars, its highly likely that the problems will be fully ironed out and we’ll have a decent idea of how the switch to automation will impact the future. In the meantime, the best thing you can do is monitor the driving behaviour of your human drivers and ensure that they’re being adequately safe. For more information about technologies to monitor your driver behaviour, contact SafeTrac today!
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