The Reality of Self-Driving Cars

Issue 7, Volume 112

By Aryana Singh 

Self-driving cars are featured in countless works, from the Knight Rider TV show to the Transformers franchise. Many people expected that we would all be driving fully autonomous cars by now. Why aren’t we, though? Various companies like Google, Tesla, and even Apple have already spent billions of dollars developing autonomous driving systems, yet these vehicles are still not available to the general public. Though self-driving vehicles could be the key to a safer and more efficient means of travel, they come at a cost that exceeds money.

For a society of self-driving vehicles to work, traffic must only consist of such vehicles. This is because autonomous systems may have trouble predicting and navigating around human errors on the road, ultimately causing more damage than if there are humans behind every wheel. Take, for example, the 11 incidents with Tesla's Autopilot feature, in which the system failed to detect emergency vehicles among other dangers, leading to 17 injuries and one death. In another instance, a Tesla in Autopilot mode failed to recognize an object and crashed into the back of a stationary police car. Unlike technology, a human behind the wheel is able to make split-second decisions that can determine life or death. Only when all road traffic is fully autonomous will self-driving cars truly work, as each vehicle on the road will be able to communicate with each other and anticipate each other’s movements.

However, if all vehicles become self-capable, the United States may lose one of its biggest cultures: car culture. No longer will teens at the age of 16 look forward to getting their learner's permit or experiencing the joy of driving their first car. If people are not in control of their cars, the joy of driving may be completely eradicated. Though many despise driving in the city because of jam-packed traffic and narrow streets, those in other parts of the country enjoy traveling by car. In fact, a study found that 73 percent of Americans prefer road trips to air travel. Cruising down Route 66 and seizing the open roads are classic parts of American culture that would cease to be pleasurable with self-driving cars.

Fun and vacations aside, safety is the most important factor. Self-driving vehicles can become a significant danger on the road if programmed incorrectly. One may think it would be unlikely that such dangers would arise, but a single-vehicle malfunction on a highway filled with autonomous vehicles traveling at nearly 80 miles per hour could prove fatal. A poll conducted by the Pew Research Center found that more than half of Americans are skeptical toward self-driving vehicles. They have good reason to be, as at the moment, self-driving cars average 9.1 accidents per million miles driven while regular vehicles average 4.1 accidents per million miles. Developers need to take more caution to prevent glitches instead of hastily rolling out their technology in hopes of high business. After all, the priority is to improve road safety.

Self-driving cars also require new regulations and high safety standards. For instance, if people regularly start traveling in autonomous vehicles, regulations should require the driver to remain attentive to the road to ensure small incidents do not result in disastrous outcomes. This is similar to how Tesla’s Autopilot feature requires active driver supervision even though the vehicle can drive on its own. Some of Tesla’s incidents involving this feature could have been prevented had the driver remained attentive to the road. Additionally, the systems were ineffective in observing driver attention as they required drivers to occasionally move the steering wheel, which could be done without even glancing at the road. Strict regulation and more informative warnings are crucial. Even the name of Tesla’s system, “Autopilot,” can mislead one to think that no driver attention is necessary when, in fact, it is. It is incredibly likely that autonomous driving systems will be purposely, or even accidentally, misused in the future without proper regulation and an informed public.

To make roads safer, we should focus on “assisted driving” rather than fully automated driving. This means focusing more on features such as lane assist, blindspot warnings, emergency braking, and camera sensors that will aid a driver in times of danger. A study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that vehicles with blind-spot monitoring had a crash involvement rate that was 14 percent lower than the same models without the safety technology. Combining technologies with the eyes of a skilled driver will greatly reduce the number of traffic incidents.

With time and lots of work, autonomous driving systems will eventually have the ability to further reduce crash rates. Rigorous development and testing must be completed to ensure higher safety standards than today’s vehicles. After all, one of the goals of autonomous driving is to make the roads a safer place. Creating a nearly flawless society full of self-driving cars is not as simple as it seems. But when it is, the possibilities are endless.