Autonomous Cars: Driving Our Future

Self-driving cars, or autonomous cars, have been a big topic for some time now. We are being ushered into a new age where technology is offering to take the driver’s seat. Quite literally.

What does that mean for us? For our culture? Even if you don’t want to buy one how will you be affected by their use?

Have you asked any of these questions yet? If you haven’t, you may soon as more and more self-driving cars hit the market.

Autonomous Decision Making

One area I find of particular interest is that of how self-driving cars make their decisions. That is, what are the heuristics they follow?Image via: unifiedstream.com

When you or I drive a car we make millions of decisions. Many of them are small decisions, like how much to turn the wheel to keep it in the lane. Some are big decisions and sometimes can involve human life.

Have you ever thought about a very difficult split-second decision you may have to make while driving?

Maybe there is someone unexpectedly crossing the street or walking across the expressway after their car ran out of gasoline. You weren’t expecting to see someone right there but you need to react quickly to avoid hitting them. In the fractional seconds, you have to make your decision you realize you may very well collide with another car or even a concrete bridge support. With your children in the backseat, you grip wheel tighter ready to make the best decision you can possibly make.

Hopefully, you will never need to make a decision like this. You may not know how you would react in a life and death situation until it comes.

But wouldn’t you want to know how a computer would make this critical decision for you? If it can’t save everyone involved from injury or worse, what choice will it make?

We, as drivers, are able to compensate for gaps in what we see or expect thanks to our experiences. – Jason Torchinsky, Jalopnik.com

Will corporations program self-driving cars with heuristics we are comfortable with? Will governments impose regulation ensuring strict guidelines be in place for these autonomous decisions?

Safety

Image via: Jeff Cooper

Maybe the biggest concern we have to address with autonomous cars is safety. As the above point tries to draw out, will we feel “safe” being a passenger to a computer?

It is important to mention, this isn’t the first time we entrusted our lives to a computer to drive us around. Automatic train operation (ATO) has been around for many years.

Mainly, it [ATO] is used on automated guideway transits and rapid transit systems which are easier to ensure safety of humans. – Automatic train operation, Wikipedia

ATO automates many rapid transit systems. The first of which was introduced in 1967:  The first line to be operated with Automatic Train Operation (ATO) was London Underground’s Victoria line, which opened in 1967 – List of automated urban metro subway systems, Wikipedia

While the prior section of this post looks at an aspect that could be a possible negative for safety, there are positives too.  Self-driving cars could be designed to interface with each other while driving leaving little to no guesswork to what to expect on the road ahead. While accidents should be reduced, should one occur on the expressway the cars for miles behind the accident could already know about it and take measures to avoid joining the collision or getting stuck in traffic because of it.

When an accident happens on the expressway and we aren’t aware of it as we approach it is very possible to become part of the accident due to the unexpected slowdown or full stop required. This could be avoided with autonomous technology.

 

Are you ready for one, or what would you need to see happen before you buy a self-driving car?

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