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Are Driverless Cars a Good Idea?

Driverless (or autonomous) car technology may still seem like the stuff of science fiction and the distant future, but it is increasingly a part of our lives right now.  Further development of the technology is inevitable. Therefore, it is worth asking if driverless cars a good idea  Will driverless cars be safe, and what concerns should we have about them?  Let’s start with a quick overview of the technology.

There are 6 widely accepted stages of autonomous vehicles. This info graphic from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) depicts them quite well:

Are driverless cars a good idea? This info graphic shows the 6 levels of automated driving technology, from No Automation to Full Automation.
Image Source: https://www.nhtsa.gov/technology-innovation/automated-vehicles-safety

Much of the technology is already here, and the rest is quickly on its way.  But the question remains: Are driverless cars a good idea?

Pros of Driverless Cars

Fewer accidents

This is, of course, the key advantage of driverless technology: the promise of greater safety.  If humans have less, or even no, responsibility behind the wheel, there is good reason to believe there will be fewer accidents.  According to a 2016 study by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 94% of “serious crashes” are directly linked to human choices.  This is not really surprising considering that people are responsible for almost all driving decisions right now, but it underscores the potential of driverless technology to make a significant impact.  However, there just isn’t enough concrete data to say for sure how great the impact would be.  We do know, though, that tens of thousands of people die in car crashes every year. Therefore, even a 10% decrease in fatalities literally means thousands of saved lives.

Reduced drunk driving

There is absolutely no excuse for drunk driving.  Ever.  Sadly, that doesn’t stop people from engaging in this reckless, irresponsible, deadly behavior.  If cars can reach a fully automated level that requires zero human judgement, there will be no driving for the “drunk” to do. 

Economic impact

A few years ago, the research division of financial services company Morgan Stanley issued an article on autonomous driving for prospective investors. The article projected some astounding financial benefits:

  • $1.3 trillion in annual savings to the U.S. economy
  • $5.6 trillion in annual savings to the global economy
  • 8% in annual GDP for the U.S.

It is also reasonable to expect a significant boost to the automotive industry and the global economy resulting from the public’s adoption of the new technology. At some point, driverless cars are likely to reach a tipping point where people move from the older technology to the newer (like the migration from VHS to DVD and then to digital, or the evolution of the telephone from rotary dials to smartphones.)

Productivity increases

People who choose public transportation over driving themselves often tout the personal productivity benefit of being able to perform tasks while commuting.  Be it checking email, preparing a report for work, or reading a book, the benefits of letting someone (or something) else take care of the driving lets you do more with your time.  The article referenced above from Morgan Stanley also estimated $507 billion annually in productivity gains across the U.S.

Another, perhaps less obvious, benefit of driverless cars could be productivity gains for police.  Currently police provide the very necessary service of enforcing traffic laws, and while the data related to time commitment varies between agencies, it is clearly a priority activity.  If there is a reduced need for traffic law enforcement as a result of driver automation, it is reasonable to think that police resources could be directed elsewhere (as opposed to seeing a reduction in the police force).

Greater mobility for the disabled and elderly

There are many people who are unable to drive themselves places due to factors like a physical disability or advanced age.  While public transportation can be an option, it is not always a convenient one and a result can be decreased mobility for people who are not able to use their own vehicle.  Access to a safe, personal use vehicle could have a positive impact on the quality of life for many people.

Cons of Driverless Cars

Elimination of human judgement

While human judgement can often be flawed (see the first “pro” listed above), the human mind is still an incredible processor of information.  A highly publicized fatal accident in 2018 involving a self-driving Uber vehicle and a pedestrian caused Uber to suspend testing of its autonomous vehicles pending further investigation.  More than a year later, investigators found that the driverless car was unable to recognize that pedestrians jaywalk.  That’s just one example – and one that can likely be addressed effectively by programmers – but it indicates how many variables need to be accounted for when we talk about safety and human behavior.

Job loss

According to a report from Goldman Sachs, when autonomous vehicles reach peak market saturation, the result could be 300,000 job losses per year in the U.S.  Now this does not account for jobs created by the emerging technology, but those are different types of jobs.  Many driving jobs represent opportunities for workers to earn well above minimum wage without a college education.  The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the median pay for truck drivers in 2018 was $21.00 per hour.

Complicated regulations

The legislation related to self-driving cars is confusing to say the least.  State regulations are more prevalent than federal ones. Therefore, we have a lot of inconsistency across our Interstates.  The 2020s is likely to be a decade of rapid advancement in autonomous driving technology, but we will enter the decade without any significant legislation from Congress to create federal standards for driverless vehicles.  Two bills in 2018 gained some initial traction, with the House passing the Safely Ensuring Lives Future Development and Research In Vehicle Evolution (SELF DRIVE) Act, and the Senate introducing a comparable, bipartisan Act called the American Vision for Safer Transportation through Advancement of Revolutionary Technologies (AV START).  Despite the considerable efforts to create great acronyms, both acts failed to pass through the Senate.

High entry level cost

As with any new technology, the earliest versions tend to be pricey and available only to those at relatively high income levels.   Anyone, of course, can be in a car accident.  However, the poor are disproportionately likely to be affected by accidents because they are more likely to own older vehicles that don’t have the latest safety features.  Also, older vehicles are more likely to suffer from general wear and tear, and people with lower incomes have a harder time affording regular maintenance.  This means that the initial safety advantages of autonomous vehicles are not likely to help those who would benefit most.  The problem could be lessened if there is a substantial consumer subsidy for buying the new cars, but that type of government support is far from certain.

Hacker susceptibility

Hacking is already a global problem.  There have been significant advances in cybersecurity in the past few years, but personal data is still stolen and sold every day.  Account passwords are vulnerable.  Even our elections have been targeted by cyberattacks.  None of these problems, however, have the same immediate physical consequences as a hacked autonomous vehicle could have.  Whether it would be mass traffic jams caused by stalled cars or intentional collisions, the consequences could be disastrous.

Furthermore, the interconnected nature of autonomous vehicles necessitates strong cybersecurity measures to protect both individual cars and the overall transportation network. Additionally, the use of cloud-based technologies for navigation and communication in driverless cars highlights the importance of secure data transmission and advanced encryption to prevent breaches. Therefore, if the new driverless car technology doesn’t include substantial safety features to prevent hacking, the safety gains referenced above could be quickly canceled out.

Erosion of driving skills

How many people can drive a stick shift?  According to a 2016 report from U.S. News and World Report, the number could be as low as 18 percent of U.S. drivers.  It is hard to imagine that the percentage has grown since then, and manual transmission cars are becoming an anomaly.  With the advent of driverless technology, how long will it be before we are asking how many people can drive a car?

Conclusion

Self-driving cars are already upon us to some degree, and the advancement of the technology is inevitable.  The future popularity and mass adoption of driverless cars is not guaranteed, though, at least within the next generation or two of consumers.  The cons on this list are significant. And the potential disruption from hacking is particularly concerning.  However, it seems possible that each of these cons can be overcome.  Given enough time, the benefits of driverless technology should win out and usher in an era where driverless cars are safe and advantageous.

Do self-driving cars make you nervous? Are you looking forward to your first ride in a driverless car? Let us know what you think in the comments.

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