Are You Ready for Self-Driving Cars?
Questions abound concerning self-driving cars. For starters, who is the legal driver of the vehicle? Who's at fault in case of an accident? And how soon before the steering wheel, brake pedal and accelerator are considered optional features? Read on for answers, and some points to ponder…
Self-Driving Cars Will Mean Big Changes
Computer software can be the legal driver of an automobile, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration ruled on February 4, 2016. That means a self-driving car need not have a licensed human driver inside, ready to take over control in case of an emergency. The ruling is a big win for Google, which requested the NHTSA’s official opinion. It means autonomous vehicles can realize their full potential unimpeded by an arbitrary legal requirement, steering wheel, or pedals.
Ready or not, for better AND for worse, human-controlled cars’ days are numbered. Optimists predict autonomous (driverless) cars will be ubiquitous in 15-20 years; others say it may take until the latter half of this century. But the rise of machine-driven machines is inexorable. The implications for society are barely imaginable, but let’s give it a shot.
No more need for a driver’s license means the end of driver’s education classes and schools; long lines at the DMV; the anxiety of road tests, especially parallel parking. People will still need ID cards, of course, so the DMV offices that provide them will remain, although likely renamed and much easier to navigate.
News media will have to find new subjects to fill the gaps between ads, now occupied by traffic jams and bizarre accidents. Mothers Against Drunk Driving may have to close up shop, unless computers learn how to consume alcohol. (Let's hope that's one part of human nature that artificial intelligence doesn't end up emulating.)
Parking valets and garage attendants will have to get real jobs; cars will park themselves or just circle the block until summoned via a smartphone app. Taxi drivers and car-sharing moonlighters with Uber, Lyft, et. al., will have nothing left to fight about. Perhaps they’ll join forces to open the thousands of new car washes that will be necessary.
A Cascade of Paradigm Shifts
Yes, cars will still need washing; that school fundraising tradition will prosper because there will be many more cars on the road. In the future, each of us will be driven around by multiple cars, switching from one to another type depending on the needs of a given trip. When commuting, a small, fuel-efficient car is ideal. For vacations, hunting or fishing trips, and the like, SUVs or RVs will be available. You may rent a different car every day, or even several times a day. (Add “car salesman” to the list of endangered careers.)
American cars spend 95% of their time parked, not moving. Car-sharing will become the norm because it will make economic sense. Why own a personal vehicle when an Uber-like app will bring the perfect car for your task to wherever you happen to be? That’s why General Motors is investing $500 million in Lyft, just for starters. The two companies plan to develop autonomous cars and build the ultimate taxi company, serving everyone.
Car insurance won’t go away, but insurance premiums will be paid by the owners of vast fleets and recouped from consumers via service charges. Overall, the cost of car insurance should decline because there should be fewer claims of all types under an autonomous car regime. Collision damage, personal injuries, and fender-benders are just part of the equation. Autonomous cars will take better care of themselves than many humans do. But there will still be storm damage, the rock that breaks a windshield, and unavoidable accidents. The last poses a difficult ethical dilemma that has yet to be resolved.
Life or Death Decisions
Consider this scenario: your autonomous car is moving you along nicely when it turns a corner and there’s a group of kindergartners in the middle of the road. Even with full emergency braking, the car will plow through them if it continues in a straight line. But the only evasive maneuver possible involves running off a cliff, with a high probability of killing you. What choice do you want “your” car to make under such conditions?
Now put your spouse, kids or grandkids in the car with you. How does that affect your choice?
I predict that you won’t have to make that difficult decision. It will be made for you by car insurance companies and programmed into autonomous cars, because the people who will pay insurance premiums naturally want the cheapest rates. Insurance companies always seek to minimize claims. An autonomous car will be programmed to take into account the economic value of everyone involved in a looming accident, using whatever information is available to it at the time.
The expected lifetime earning potential of a single kindergartener is greater than that of a retiree simply because the oldster has less time left to live. Add a granddaughter to the car and the money balance may shift the other way. But a whole class of kindergartners will send your granddaughter and you off that cliff. Things might be different if you’re a 20-something passenger and the jaywalkers are a couple of senior citizens.
These considerations may sound callous or morbid, but to a computer they're just facts and numbers. No matter what consumer preferences may be, autonomous cars will not be programmed for heroic sacrifices. They will react to emergencies in whatever way is best for someone’s bottom line.
Of course, some of this is mere speculation, but these are just a few of the many changes society will have to deal with when autonomous cars take over the roads. What others can you think of? Are you looking forward to self-driving cars, or will they have to pry your car keys from your cold, dead hand?
Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post your comment or question below...
This article was posted by Bob Rankin on 16 Feb 2016
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Article information: AskBobRankin -- Are You Ready for Self-Driving Cars? (Posted: 16 Feb 2016)
Copyright © 2005 - Bob Rankin - All Rights Reserved