Most of you have probably heard the term “driverless cars” or “self-driving cars”. Often, these words are presented as some science fiction invention of the future, when in reality, these technologies are already in existence and in use today. Although the use of driverless cars is by no means widespread in 2017, the number of automated vehicles on the road has been increasing, and so has the number of vehicles with automated features. Wikipedia defines the self-driving car as “a vehicle that is capable of sensing its environment and navigating without human input.” This means that cars do not need to have drivers, but rather they drive themselves.
Photo: Samuele Errico Piccarini on Unsplash
The driverless cars that are in use today are not fully autonomous, which means that they do need to have drivers. While the drivers are not actively controlling the car, they do need to be present and alert so that they are able to take control at any moment if that were to become necessary. In the future, there will likely be a transition to cars that are fully autonomous and require no input from the driver. The Wikipedia definition refers to the cars’ ability to sense their environment. There are multiple methods and technologies for doing this, and these include radar, lasers, GPS, and computer vision, among other things. The cars are programmed to respond appropriately given a large variety of environmental inputs, which is what allows them to drive themselves. The cars are essentially able to make the decisions that you and I make when we go behind the wheel.
One of the largest discussions on the topic of driverless cars is on the subject of safety. Many people actually fear being in a car that has no driver, even though they go on planes that spend a lot of time in automated flight modes. While this is contradictory, it will be interesting to see how companies advertise and sell their cars to potentially skeptical consumers. There are also those, however, who see the increased safety that driverless cars can provide. Since computer programs cannot fall prey to basic human limitations such as response time, it is possible that many accidents will be able to be avoided if there is a widespread switch to driverless cars. Driverless cars would also eliminate the problem of drunk driving, which is a major cause of automobile accidents today. Given that car accidents in general are one of the top causes of death in the United States, the potential to lower that rate is something that ought to be given its due consideration.
Driverless cars offer several other benefits. For example, since they are able to use their technology and features to sense the location of the other cars on the road, not only can they avoid many accidents, but they can also improve traffic flow and alter traffic patterns in ways that allow everyone to reach destinations faster. In crowded cities with a lot of traffic, this could make a big difference in how long it takes for people to get to work or appointments. Additionally, because self-driving cars consume less fuel than regular cars, they are more cost-efficient, which will definitely make them appealing to consumers.
One of the large problems surrounding the concept of driverless cars today is actually an ethical one. In certain situations, the car will need to decide whether to prioritize the life of the driver or the life of a group of people, and this is a very difficult to decision to make. While it may seem that saving the greatest number of people is the most ethical choice, many people may not want to purchase a vehicle that will sacrifice their lives under certain circumstances. This question is one that will likely need to be answered before driverless cars go into widespread use around the country.
Overall, driverless cars have a lot of potential, and there is good reason to be hopeful that they will solve many of the problems related to driving today. Even though there are reasons to be skeptical, my guess is that these will not be strong enough to halt the rise of self-driving vehicles. In the coming decades, the country’s cars will likely be replaced by ones that require no driver. What will be the cultural ramifications of this? Will people stop getting driver’s licenses? Will fewer people buy cars? Will more people buy cars? The outcomes of this shift are difficult to predict, but the crucial role that cars play in the everyday American life will likely remain the same. Cars have been part of the American lifestyle for a century, and the shift to driverless cars may be the most revolutionary event to occur in that area since the invention of the automobile.