Look Ma, No Hands – Driverless Cars
Before the Wright brothers successfully launched the first manned airplane in 1903, there were physicists and astronomers who invented aerodromes on steam-powered engines, gliders that could fly one man, and before that, hot air balloons on which the first passengers were Molly the sheep, Foghorn the rooster and Donald the duck. The names I made up but the animals were real. That was 1783. What’s my point? Read on.
In 1908, Henry Ford takes credit for revolutionising transportation with the world’s first mass-produced car combining his knowledge of existing assembly line and automobile know-how in his time. As for the world’s first modern automobile, it was designed by a bloke named Karl Benz in the year 1886. Forerunners included strange, self-propelling toys invented purely for the amusement of emperors and steam carriages that were a cross between buses and rail locomotives.
You see, history shows that we are usually cynical in each life cycle of every major invention until most of its initial risks and challenges are stripped. We willingly accept changes when they evolve sufficiently to become our way of life, from laptops to smartphones to commercial airplane travel and vehicles of all kinds on our roads today.
Today we live in the most unprecedented times in the history of transportation where powerful engineering, computer technology and transport vehicles have synthesised into a robot that may one day render all human-operated land travel, obsolete. Welcome to true 21st century science fiction: the coming of autonomous, driverless cars not dreamed up by car manufacturers but by the genius of computer geeks who own the world’s biggest internet company, Google Inc.
If you belong to the camp holding out for driverless cars, you’d be pleased to toast to their reality in the next few years, something as concrete as 2018 for Google. Other carmakers have jumped into the autonomous bandwagon. Nissan announced its fully autonomous vehicles will be available at showrooms by 2020. Similarly, the next generation of Audi A8 limousines will be capable of fully autonomous driving by as early as 2017. Jaguar and Land-Rover are following suit with claims they too will be ready to make their foray by 2024 at the 2014 Paris Motor Show. Once just a fantasy of sci-fi novels and movies, make-believe is fast becoming our impending reality.
Picture the dream of hopping into your computerised car, hitting a few buttons, telling it where you need to go and then proceeding to do whatever you wish (like knitting or chomping on lunch with both hands) as it moves off by itself. As it slowly rolls out of your driveway on its own, it jams its own brakes ever so briefly until your neighbour’s cat scurries by safely and starts on its 40km/hour transit to your desired destination. Its multiple cameras, sensors and radars are so sophisticated it even detected your prized marigold tree and the postman on its way out and knew just how to manoeuvre safely around or brake on sensing pedestrians, cyclists and road obstacles.
Googles Driverless Cars
Google believes its driverless cars could drastically cut down wasted commute time and energy, save fuel costs and increase productivity. Besides invisible drivers in cars of the future, Google hopes to make road fatalities vanish all together. The argument is by pure omission of the source of fatalities, which is human error caused by misjudgement, ignorance, fatigue or poor driving skills.
Traffic lights may also become a thing of the past if cars have the ability to ‘communicate with one another’ seamlessly resulting in more efficient, safer travel and lesser congestion. Car ownership and taxi cabs may potentially vanish too as ‘car-sharing’ with these autonomous vehicles become more common. With car-sharing, the world can reduce carbon footprint significantly. Once such sharing is enabled, all people have to do to get where they want is order a car that will pick them up, or, on hopping off at a train station, order a driverless pod from their smartphone in minutes. Why bother buying a car?
The elderly and disabled may welcome these self-driving robotic cars as they can finally enjoy greater mobility. Kids and adults will no longer require driving licenses, no one will ever get lost in the woods again or curse another GPS unit. Insurance premiums could see a drastic drop if driverless cars can be shown to increase road safety and in theory—it may actually become legal to ‘drink and drive’. Cheers to that? Or are we still skeptical or just that slightly reluctant or uneasy relinquishing our control to ‘Sam the android chauffeur’? After all, how do you trust a driver you can’t even see? And how do you learn to be secure in a car that moves you without a steering wheel, brakes or accelerator to step on in case you need to resume human control in some unpredictable scenario? Am afraid the only function left for your two hands that formerly turned a steering wheel will now only be used to…cover your eyes or be clapped in a prayer for the best. Just how safe and trust-worthy are Google’s cars?
Google’s prototypes may have safely driven more than a combined mileage of 1,126 km but some experts in universities studying autonomous driving worry about how a map-dependent system like Google’s will respond if a route sees changes. It would mean having to constantly update millions of kilometres of roads and driveways including new signs and light poles that it wasn’t anticipating.
Yet Google insists these are minor hiccups that aren’t considered a massive roadblock in their refinement of autonomous driving technology. Other potential issues are driving in poor weather or challenging road conditions with heavy snow, heavy rains, multi-level car parks and even fine-tuning of the autonomous vehicle’s video cameras that detect different colours of traffic lights. It may risk being ‘blinded’ when the sun is directly behind a light and construction zones pose a hazard as it could throw the sensors and cameras off course.
The Future of Driverless Cars
There is no doubt the future is so bright for these self-driving vehicles that we all need sunshades to shield ourselves from the glare of their soon inevitable invasion. While most are certain they’ll benefit urban city folk but the question remains; what do we do about rural dwellers in our Australian road maps living in areas short on strong internet connection for access to GPS systems? Aren’t the rural areas more pressing in their need for transport and more likely to benefit from improved transport technologies yet may be disadvantaged in this regard? Australian transport authorities reckon it will be a long time before we can realistically incorporate driverless cars on our roads on a massive scale.
There are more pertinent issues and questions that need to be addressed. What about liability in the case of accidents involving self-driving cars? Assigning liability would be a challenge since computerised cars lack the moral code of human motorists and act instead based on a different code—that of their set algorithms and programming. How will lawmakers decide to impose liability? Will it be on us the human race or the army of robotic vehicles?
I hope the folks at Google are putting a lot more thought into their design than simply focusing on the nuts and bolts of designing hi-tech bubble-like pods that will take us from our homes safely to the shops and back. There are social and cultural aspects of car ownership that make it tough for people to simply give up their privilege to drive a car. Aren’t our vehicles an inextricable extension of ourselves today? Autonomous car design should take into account consumer behaviour and the psyche of car consumers on a more complex level and examine the kinds of relationships we enjoy with our vehicles. How sad it will be to not have those sweet childhood memories of fighting your siblings for the best side of the back seat in the family car and what will happen to the annual family ritual of long road trips? What about rites of passage? I had fond memories of being presented with my first car keys on getting the much coveted driving license. I savoured my sweet promotion from adolescence to adulthood and earned a freedom I waited for years to get my hands on. How will such a giant leap in changing our car culture affect our lifestyle and social behaviours? How long will it take for its technology to be fully exploited to gain human trust and acceptance to be perceived as a real improved way of life?
I don’t know about you but it is as uplifting as it is depressing on a few levels. I for one, needs more persuasion and nudging to accept a world of ‘driverless’ motoring on a full scale. I’m sure if it proves to make our roads safer and becomes a more efficient and green way of travel, we’ll all benefit greatly from it. Yet its downsides are as valid as its pros.
I remember the sci-fi dystopian movie i, Robot from 2004. The robots were programmed with 3 Laws, one of which was specifically ‘never to harm a human’, ‘always obey a human unless it violates the first law’ and the third being ‘protect its own existence unless it violates Laws 1 & 2’. Well guess what. That programming malfunctioned and the robots turned rogue, turning on its human designers. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. Computers can malfunction and fail us. For now, I’m quite happy being the one behind the wheel and calling the shots.
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