Should We Fear the Rise of Computer-Powered Vehicles?

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The Google Driverless Car

The concept of driverless cars is nothing new.  In fact, the idea of the autonomous car first came out in the 1920s when Houdina Radio Control came up with a radio-controlled car that did not need a driver.  But the first autonomous car that really captured the public’s imagination came in the 1980s.  Think of Kitt, the car from the 1982 TV series Knight Rider.  As for today’s driverless cars, the possibilities are endless.  You only need to get on the car and it would take you home or to the office even if you close your eyes and sleep.  You do not have to do anything other than to input where you want to go.  You could tell it where to go and it will leave you at your destination.  You do not even have to park.

For some, they do not even have to own their autonomous car.  It will just pick you up if you need to go somewhere and leave when you are done so you do not need garage space at home.

But how much of these are wishful thinking, and what part of these is science fiction?  And should you really fear the rise of computer-powered vehicles?

Not owning your car

Emily Badger, writing for Atlantic Cities, raises the scenario of autonomous cars being available to you on demand.  You do not need to own them, you just pay for the time that you used them.  Once you are done with the car, it will leave and pick up another passenger.  Much like a personal taxi or a personal mass transit service!

Badger then raises the question of how this will affect public transportation as we know it now.  The implication is that if you ever have driverless cars running around and it is more convenient to use one than to get on a bus or a taxi, then what’s the use of still having mass transit systems?  The short answer to this complex question is that, we will still need buses, trains and other mass transport systems.  This is because while driverless cars may prove to be very safe and all that, the roads will not change.  A driverless car will still take up as much space as a car with a driver, and three cars with one passenger each will take as much space as a bus with, say, 20 passengers.  So for cities with many small roads, driverless cars would not be of much help.  In short, mass transport will continue to be needed for the things that it is used for now: getting a lot of people to their destinations without congesting the roads any further.

Are they safe?

Now that we know that autonomous cars would not necessarily lay our tax dollars, which are used in creating public mass transport systems, go to waste, we have to know if it is safe to get on a driverless car.  For sure, with nobody at the wheel, it would be more prone to accidents, right?  Or it could easily get lost.

The New York Times lists down the many safety advantages of autonomous cars.  The Times took a look at the driving tests that were performed on driverless cars conducted by Google and other companies.  The New York Times found that these new cars actually have a good safety record.  Because the cars are aware of their environment, you have fewer accidents on the road.  That also means you can pack more cars on the road because you have lesser safety gaps.

How did Google’s experience go?  The search giant put seven driverless cars on the road and these cars went for 1,000 miles each without anybody driving it.  These cars also traveled close to 150,000 miles with just minimal human intervention.  In all those times, the cars never caused an accident.  All those thousands of miles on the road and with seven cars, the only accident they had was when another car rear ended one of Google’s cars.  Google found that the artificial intelligence in these cars reacted faster than any human driver would.

Also, what makes these cars even safer was that there is no chance for them to be distracted and they have a 360-degree view.  Meaning, the car can sense everything from the front, back, left and right.

Other benefits of driverless cars

More than just safety, there are other benefits to a car that you do not have to drive.  For one, you can catch up on work.  Rather than spending all that time in traffic just sitting and idling away, you can take out your laptop and check your business e-mails.  You can text, make phone calls, or even eat your breakfast on the road!  You can also just relax and have a short nap while you are stuck in traffic.  You no longer have to get stressed or exhausted while driving.  If you need to do some mundane task, like drop the kids off to school or give the CD you borrowed back to your friend, you can even stay at home and just let the car do it for you.

And because driverless cars can be 100% safe, car manufacturers would be able to use lighter materials because there is no danger of it crashing.  The lightness would mean less fuel would be consumed, making way for greener and more environment-friendly cars on the road.

It will be a shock

Another concern is that it might shock a lot of people.  For one, not everybody is updated with technology and many might find it disconcerting to see a car drive by itself.  For another, people might not be ready to relinquish control over their cars.

Subaru’s EyeSight

However, people would have plenty of time to get used to the idea of driverless cars on the streets in real life.  There are features that you can find on the cars you drive now.  For example, Subaru has the EyeSight system that is able to detect when the car you are following stops or slows down. EyeSight will then automatically stop or slow your vehicle down.  There are also cars that allow you to switch on cruise control when you are in stop and when you go into traffic.  Or perhaps you are driving a car that helps you stay in your lane or tell you when you are getting too close to the next car.  These are driving assistance services and self-driving tools that allow you to be safer on the road.  And these features are available now.

However, the fully autonomous car is not yet offered to the public.  Panelists at the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show are at a loss regarding a specific timeline when autonomous cars will go mainstream.  BMW’s Elmar Frickenstein, who is responsible for the German automaker’s electrics and electronics, said that a car that will be able to find a parking space by itself will be available in six years, and that’s being optimistic.  If an autonomous car should become a reality, it will be incremental.  Timothy Yerdon of Visteon even suggested that a fully autonomous car might never really happen.  Yerdon reasons that artificial intelligence and computers will never become as good as humans when it comes to the unexpected.  If the roads are predictable and routine, then there should be no problem.  But what if it is like the roads we have now where there is a surprise at literally and figuratively every corner?

As such, the general consensus is that autonomous vehicles might take a long time before it becomes a reality.  And when it first becomes available it will be very expensive!

Downsides

Of course, there are downsides as well.  As with any improvements in technology, autonomous cars will be taking over human-related function.  For one, it could mean the loss of driver jobs.  If autonomous cars become a reality, this would mean millions of taxi, bus and truck drivers would be out of jobs.  Delivery riders would no longer be needed, as you can expect that an autonomous car would be delivering your pizza.

Aside from the loss of certain jobs, there is also the problem of hacking.

Because computers would control these cars, there is always a danger that the computer system would be compromised and would hijack your car.  The Financial Post had a report in September 2013 that revealed how hackers could hijack your cars’ computer systems.  Without even getting near a compromised computer system, they can stop your car, turn off the engine or steer your vehicle.  And they could do these things from their laptops.  It may have taken months for computer experts to break into a car’s computer system, but they were able to do it.  Now if this happens to your car, this could lead to more accidents on the road instead of making it safer.  Or it could make your driverless car an easy target for carnappers.

Still, these downsides should not put you off and discourage you from embracing computer-powered vehicles.  With all the benefits to safety and convenience you could gain, you can be sure that when autonomous cars do become mainstream, car manufacturers would have stamped out these problems and have come up with much more secure computers for your vehicles.

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Sherly Mendoza is a banker by profession, but she's been blogging and writing tech articles since 2012. She's a woman fascinated with all things related to telematics, wearables, gadgets, the Internet, fashion, health and lifestyle. Sherly is also a new mom to a bouncing baby boy. She just gave birth last August 2013. Sherly reads and follows several tech and fashion blogs and websites. Some of them include Gizmodo, Engadget, Marie Claire and Pete Cashmore of Mashable. She's a Mac and PC user. Sherly is teaching herself on how to use the cPanel for website management. She's also fascinated with the Internet of Things, its applications and potentials. Sherly maintains her portfolio and blog at http://www.TechyFashionista.com.