Are You Ready for Self-Driving Cars?

Category: Auto

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.

Self-Driving Cars

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...

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Most recent comments on "Are You Ready for Self-Driving Cars?"

(See all 31 comments for this article.)

Posted by:

Phil Reed
16 Feb 2016

Well, I think the time has come.

And it couldn't have come at a better time for me and anyone my age. Becayse we're not getting any younger. For those getting into their 60s, 70s, 80s and older, many are stuck at home since they can't drive for one reason or another. They're housebound unless a friend or relative has the time to take them to the grocery store, the doctor's office, the mall, etc. What a relief for this group of citizens to have some freedom with self-driving cars. I think cities with the elaborate bus systems that still drop you off blocks from your front door will also probably diminish. Why would someone opt for a bus when a self-driving car can take you where you want to go and take you and your bags to your home.

People don't like change -- it's been said over and over. But sometimes change is a good thing. Maybe not for you, but certainly for others. I think there's room for both the old and the new!

Posted by:

16 Feb 2016

Surely any kindergarten teacher would have enough sense not to take her children across a road too close to a corner. That is fundamental to road safety and a rule I follow when walking.
Interesting article. There will be the need for new laws and hopefully ones based on human considerations other than profit.

Posted by:

16 Feb 2016

Good point, Chris. But even in that situation nobody would get hurt if everyone drove the way my driving instructor taught me: always drive at such a speed that you are ale to stop safely within the distance that you can see to be clear of hazards. So when you can't see what's round the corner, or it's foggy, or the road is icy, slow down.
Driverless cars must be programmed to drive according to that principle too. Any other 'moral dilemma' scenario you can think of provides more criteria to be included in the cars' programming.

Posted by:

16 Feb 2016

Dear Bob,
Thanks much for a very interesting article.As for me, they will have to pry my car keys out of my cold, dead, very tightly clasped fingers before I let a computer do my driving for me. I would rather a wreck be my own fault than the fault of a computer that crashed. Besides,I don't even use cruise control. I am perfectly capable of regulating the speed of my car.

Posted by:

Steve H
16 Feb 2016

I think the amount of cars will decrease. Cars sit in our driveways because we are not available to drive. When cars are able to drive, they will be able to time-share with others.
Also, I doubt very much that politicians will allow unoccupied cars. It would be nice to send a car out to pick up some items for me, but politicians are not known for nice.

Posted by:

16 Feb 2016

Dude you are getting way ahead of yourself.
The Autonomous car thing would be nice to use so it can be turned on in crawl speed situations during your daily commute.
People have to get used to these things first.
You probably have forgotten about the out of control Toyota going 100-120 Mph with the driver scared to death sitting in there with his/her hands on the wheel yet no control with the speed.
How much is that Autonomous BS gonna cost anyway?
What we really need is an Autonomous lawn mower.
What the he** are those kids doing on the road anyway? where is the supervision?

Posted by:

17 Feb 2016

I love to drive,computers would take my main pleaser away.

Posted by:

Sarah L
17 Feb 2016

Why do you think traffic jams will end when robot driven cars appear? Too many people travelling at the same time assures a traffic jam. Building road lanes for the peak wastes a lot of land. So, traffic jams will still be with us. The hope of those cars is to eliminate some human behaviors in traffic jam situations to make the jams less likely to produce collisions. We have lots of learning to do between that future and now.

Posted by:

Thom R
17 Feb 2016

consider a car with windows 8.0. Need I say more?

Posted by:

Old Man
17 Feb 2016

"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?"

Really! Who would be stupid enough to put an elementary school that close to a cliff? Also, where was the patrol person who would be responsible to warn a vehicle that children were in the road? Who let the children in the middle of the road? Mid-block cross walks I've seen are far enough from the corner that a vehicle traveling at the speed limit (usually 20 MPH when children are present) would be able to stop for someone crossing. Remember that autonomous cars would have access to more information than any human driver and would probably sense that there were people in the road before making the turn.

The major problem with all these "choose the lesser of two evils" scenarios is that they ignore all the other factors that would prevent the situation in the first place.

NOTE: Inclement weather and degraded road conditions are already being investigated and, to a limited extent, tested. By the time these cars become mainstream, they will be more secure and reliable than any system currently available.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Sheesh, all these comments about why kindergartners shouldn't be in the road... it was a hypothetical. Let's say it was a couple of 3rd graders running into the road after a soccer ball, nowhere near a school zone, okay? Same problem...

Posted by:

17 Feb 2016

Hell No!

Posted by:

17 Feb 2016

This would never do for me, I love to drive. Now that I am retired and don't have to drive, I love it even more. Especially on the open road. Emergency braking might be ok though.

Posted by:

Anthony Birnbaum
17 Feb 2016

I would like to add one more thought: I'm convinced that Google is trying to take over the world (but I also thought that about Bill Gates and Microsoft back in the 1990's). In any case, you don't think you'll be able to have a driverless car without Google tracking as much information as they can from your "car" do you?(Where you go, when you go, etc.) And then selling that information to the highest bidder. Maybe I'm being paranoid here, but I don't think Google gives a damn about privacy and the driverless car is simply one more way they can spy on you.

Posted by:

Patrick C
17 Feb 2016

I can see a need and a use for driverless cars. Such as a commute where you travel the same route each workday to and from work. BUT I would like to turn off the 'driverless' part once I leave the route. One instance - I need to go shopping and we all know there's more morons in a parking lot than there are cars and said morons are ready to kill for the closest place to park, (so they don't have to get any exercise walking). Another instance would be taking you kids(s) to a school function after school hours. There are some real idiots out there that shouldn't be allowed to open a car door, much less drive. And there's the small debris scattered here and about that's really hard for the radar to see that can screw your car up royally. I know, I was a radar tech in Viet Nam and the small stuff looks like old broadcast tv snow IF YOU CAN SEE IT. I rest my case.

Posted by:

17 Feb 2016

Combine an Uber type cellphone app with the all electric car and the self driving automobile and all of a sudden you have a highly efficient fast, comfortable urban transportation technology. No need for parking. No pollution. Extremely low operating costs for the vehicle. No driver wages. No or low pedestrian and cyclist accidents. The technology is capable of delivering a door to door comfortable "transit" ride at a cost of less than a dollar for a 6 mile trip (about 1/3rd of the cost of existing urban transit systems) and still make a large profit for operators.

Cloud computing interactive control allows "herd" traffic management and ride scheduling that dramatically increases road density and prevents congestion. (Non computer controlled cars will have to be banned from the inner city.)

Very heavy traffic routes can still be served by rapid transit and commuter rail - with Uber/Google cars feeding the rapid transit system. The cars can be privately owned or competitively owned and operated with different fees for different levels of luxury and privacy.
The whole system is so cost effective it will bring "public" transit to small towns and even villages.

My point is, this technology is clearly in the works, and major players are already jockying for position to grab a piece of this transportation revolution.

Posted by:

C Cochran
17 Feb 2016

I look forward to self driving cars so I can read a good book on those 10-15 hour drives that I just need to do to get there. I want the option to drive myself though because as someone else pointed out, sometimes you get intentionally lost in the mountains and go where very few have gone before. That's a time when I really enjoy driving.

Posted by:

17 Feb 2016

Less need for hotel rooms too. Imagine a minivan with the interior of a small travel trailer. Leave Boston after dinner, watch a bit of TV, go to sleep and wake up well rested in D.C. Spend your day working, your evening partying, then head off for home or your next destination. Way more civilized than flying.

Posted by:

Old Man
18 Feb 2016

WRT my previous post. The point I was making is that such no-win scenarios are totally lacking in background information that created the situation.
Let’s use two other more likely options:
1) You are the driver of the vehicle. What would YOU do?
2) You are the passenger in a vehicle with a human driver faced with the same situation. How would you feel about having your fate in the hands of another human?
As was pointed out in your other article on driverless cars, they would most likely be equipped with sensors that would detect the presence of people in, or potentially entering, the road and compensate for the potential hazard. This would provide the onboard computer with more information than would be available to a human driver.
Are such sensors currently available? No.
Are driverless cars readily available? No.
Will sensors be sensitive and accurate enough to avoid these conditions when driverless cars become mainstream? Most likely, yes.
-- Suppose you were driving in town and the streets were full of holiday shoppers. You try to stop, but the brake lever comes loose. Your only choice would be to run into the crowd and injure many people, or steer into a gas lamp and catch the vehicle on fire? No. You will never catch me using one of those horseless carriage things. --

Posted by:

Roger Wehling
18 Feb 2016

And as soon as this is the way of life in this country our enemies will destroy our satellites. Then what?

Posted by:

Gloria Huffman
18 Feb 2016

Self-driven cars as rentals for one trip at a time are laughable except as taxis. I often have personal stuff in my car, and it is not just a purse and a briefcase! I always carry food because I'm on a special diet and can't just grab a sandwich when I'm hungry. There's no way I can envision transferring stuff from one rental car to the next several times a day! Then what would I have to do overnight? Put it all in my apartment or house until I get up the next day and have to transfer it back to the car? How long would I have to wait for an available car to come along to take me on a 10' trip to the bank that takes 30' by bicycle? I have enough experience with taking a public bus to know that this is going to wind up limiting you to one or two trips a day (or less if you can't afford what it costs to rent a ride every time you turn around). You will eventually only be able to go to places that are on the approved list of destinations. Towns and cities will necessarily begin to shrink-wrap themselves around a central axis and result in European-style villages with huge wastelands of uninhabited terrain in between them. No more being able to drive somewhere with no money in your pocket but half a tankful of gasoline still in your own car. Whoever is thinking up all these utopian scenarios of rentable driverless cars is not thinking about the real trade-offs between reduced car accidents and injuries/deaths vs. freedom of movement. If you've never been forced to ride your bike when your car wasn't working (even through the rain, and not at all in winter), you have no idea what it will be like to have no money to rent a car multiple times a day or multiple times a week. Even if a licensed driver is in a self-driving car, lack of frequent driving practice will result in that driver being mentally and physically uncoordinated in an emergency situation. I could go on ...

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