Self-driving cars have the potential of being packed with convenience and technology. Think of a world where you are chauffeured by your car to a restaurant, dropped off at the door, and your car will go park itself. When you’re done eating you can pull up an app on your phone and have your car come pick you up curbside. While it goes to park itself it may stop by a charging station and fill its electric battery, saving you the time it would take to do that. Think of being able to take a trip cross-country in your own car and taking a nap while driving through Kansas. On this highway you could drive bumper to bumper at the same speed. Now think if something went wrong.
As a transit enthusiast I am against self-driving cars. As a person who is fascinated by advances in technology, I love them and want one now. Elements of self driving cars have already made their way on the market. Cruise control has been around for years and newer cars will parallel park for you. As any planner has to realize, cars are and forever will be, a permanent feature of our lives. It is impractical to think that you can get everyone to move into a densely populated area and live near transit. It is also impractical to think of a way to get freight, consumer goods, and emergency vehicles to their destinations without paved roads. I love the idea of a self-driving car, but it makes me uneasy for a few reasons. You may have recently seen a video of Google’s self-driving car where it takes a blind man to Taco Bell. Yes, this is awesome, a major advancement in technology, and allows disabled persons to be independent. Unfortunately self driving cars used by the masses are inefficient and potentially dangerous.
Self driving cars use sensors to detect what is around them; cars, curbs, people, etc. It uses this information as well as information obtained through the internet to decide where in the lane the car needs to be, how fast it should drive, and when to change lanes. In theory if everyone’s car had the technology, cars would talk to each other. Here’s what a conversation may look like.
Car 1: Hey I’m coming up behind you.
Car 2: Cool, I’m cruising at 70 now.
Car 1: Awesome, I’ll adjust my speed to follow closely behind you.
Car 2: Sweet. So how’s the wife?
Car 3: Hey guys I need get off at this next exit, mind slowing down and letting me in?
With self driving cars, vehicles can drive inches from each other without any danger because when the car in front brakes, it immediately tells the following car to brake too. If cars have to drive inches from each other, how congested are our highways? What does it say about driving culture if we need to be crammed within inches of one another to fit all the cars? There is a much more practical and efficient method of moving people than having a line of close cars, all traveling at the same speed. It’s called a train.
In addition to preferring the more efficient alternative of a train, I have problems with the reliability of the technology. I am not one to be skeptical of new technology. If given driving directions from a local or what my phone tells me to do, I’m going to go with my phone every time. Think of self driving cars as planes on auto pilot. Today the vast majority of flight miles are done on auto pilot. Pilots are there for take off and landing, and if there is an emergency like unsatisfactory conditions or a technological failure. A major problem with auto pilot is that pilots actually fly so little, that they aren’t very good at it. Look at Captain Sully and the plane he landed on the Hudson River after it experienced engine troubles while taking off. Had Sully not been an experienced pilot things probably would not have turned out nearly as well. Now take that a similar, hypothetical scenario of two cars traveling on a highway inches from each other. The car in front slams on its breaks. The communication fails and the driver of the second car is not paying attention or does not know how to adequately apply the brakes to avoid a collision. Car 2 slams into the car in front possible causing a chain reaction because there are several cars traveling inches from one another.
Self driving cars have amazing possibilities as demonstrated in the video of the Google Car. In the long run, self-driving cars are probably safer than the average human driver; especially those with disabilities or the elderly. Self-driving cars could even all but eliminate the issues of drunk driving. Unfortunately I fear for the safety of them if something goes wrong. If something does go wrong and a problem occurs, whose fault is it? It’s not really the driver’s because they weren’t driving. Or is it because they failed to intervene and prevent the wreck? Or if they’ve been drinking is that the new DUI? Or is it the manufacturer because they created a product that malfunctioned? What if someone is severely hurt or killed? Who gets charged with a crime? These questions will obviously work themselves out as the cars become more common, but the inherent risk of forgetting how to drive has no solution.