It has happened before. As you approach a traffic light and wait for the next go signal, you glance around at the other vehicles on the road. You then notice the driver in the car next to you with their hands completely off the steering wheel and eyes off the road, focusing on their cellphone instead. You shake your head at the safety threat they pose…
But what if this was completely fine because they aren’t really the one in control?
The reality of driverless cars revving on the road is quickly approaching, sooner than you might think.
Photo by Automobile Italia via Flickr
When will they debut on public roads?
Some predict autonomous vehicles will take the road by the end of the year. Others anticipate them to fully come into effect in a few more years. Ford, Volvo and Uber hope to release their creations to the public around 2020.
However, Ryan Hagemann, who specializes in auto robotics and automation and is a part of the think tank TechFreedom, has his eye on 2025 as the year everything will most likely fall into place for self-driving cars, due to regulatory policies that still need to be sorted out.
In the meantime, many companies, such as Google, Tesla Motors, Mercedes-Benz, and Audi, have spent recent years conducting research, producing and testing driverless cars. On our side of the border, there are almost 100 companies in Ontario working towards developing such a product.
While manufacturers race towards who can get autonomous vehicles out on the public market as soon as possible, others predict it could take a couple of decades for such products to become the norm. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers believe only by 2040 will 75 per cent of cars on the road be automated to a certain extent.
Although there is still no specific date, it is inevitable that driverless cars are the future mode of transportation. But public opinion is closely split on actually using them. In a 2014 study, Pew found that 48 per cent of those surveyed would ride in an autonomous vehicle, while 50 per cent would not.
Kanetix also conducted a similar survey last December to see where Canadians stand on the issue. Results found that 25 per cent would use a driverless car, 23 per cent would not, and 52 per cent answered maybe.
Advocates of the technology argue that the projected substantial effect it will have on reducing vehicular accidents should be enough reason to embrace it.
“The technology works because, frankly, the computer can see better than you can, even if you’re not drunk in a car,” said Eric Schmidt, the chairman of Google’s parent company Alphabet, at the Milken Institute Global Conference.
Driverless cars are equipped with tools like GPS, sensors, radar, high-powered cameras and a learning algorithm software. All these work together to help determine the car’s location and plan its movements based on surrounding vehicles’ actions, as well as signs and people close by.
The Eno Center for Transportation states, “driver error is believed to be the main reason behind over 90 per cent of all crashes.” In theory, by letting the car take control, less automobile-related deaths due to human error or distraction would take place. As a result, total annual costs of accidents in the U.S. would be reduced by over $400 billion.
Besides the potentially large decline in vehicular accidents, driverless cars could also have a positive impact on the environment Traffic, congestion, and travel time would be reduced, in turn lessening pollution. In addition, disabled and elderly people would no longer be excluded from taking the front seat once the implementation of autonomous vehicles takes place.
However, driverless cars may come with some unwanted baggage. For example, there is potential for a breach of privacy due to the data that will be collected on the car computers regarding road conditions, vehicle locations, and drivers’ vital signs.
Also, the implementation of autonomous vehicles could lead to widespread job cuts, particularly for truck, bus and cab drivers. In some places, 10 to 15 per cent of American workers could lose their jobs to robotic vehicles. Similarly, about 300,000 truck drivers in Canada could find themselves unemployed. This number doesn’t even include drivers of other types of vehicles.
Furthermore, current driverless cars are not as efficient as they are made out to be. Since they rely on prior mapping of routes and environments, the vehicles may not be able to figure out how to deal with police officers, temporary traffic signals, and unexpected weather changes involving fog, rain or snow. In these conditions, humans hold the upper hand.
Law and ethics
Autonomous vehicles also lack the moral decision making that humans have, potentially increasing the consequences in unexpected life or death situations. For example, how would a driverless car determine what to do if a child ran out into the middle of the road to retrieve a ball? Opinions are split on whether such vehicles should be programmed to sacrifice as little people as possible, even if that means killing its own passengers. With circumstances varying from situation to situation, it will be unethical to program driverless cars to follow a few set options.
Lawmakers are still figuring out who will be held legally responsible in accidents involving autonomous vehicles. About 75 per cent of those surveyed by CheapCarInsurance.net believed the car manufacturer should be blamed. On the other hand, 14 per cent would hold those inside the car responsible. Another 13 per cent would place the blame on the victim.
However, according to a recent CBC article, “as long as a driver with some ability to assume or resume control of the vehicle is present, there would seem to be a continuing basis for driver negligence and liability as they presently exist.”
How safe are the vehicles?
All the potential errors that driverless cars could commit are still unclear as testing is still ongoing. It will take some time to complete before ensuring the safety of the vehicles.
“Where humans fail the most may not be where autonomous vehicles do. They may fail in entirely new ways,” said Nidhi Kalra, co-author of a Rand Corp. report on driverless cars.
The reliability of the products can also be questioned due to the lack of transparency from manufacturers regarding the severity and scope of accidents during testing.
Road fatalities have dropped in both the U.S. and Canada over the past few decades. Between 1970 and 2014, road deaths in the U.S. dropped from 53,000 to 33,000. Canada has similarly experienced a decline, with 3,313 road fatalities in 1995 dropping to 1,834 in 2014.
However, the vehicular accident rate is still high. Only time can tell whether driverless cars will actually be able to nearly eliminate road accidents. If you have been injured due to another driver’s negligence, contact us today to learn about how we can help you receive the compensation you deserve.