Safe But Boring

With self-driving cars a foregone conclusion, we will all be safer on the road. But what will be lost in the process?

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Everybody’s talking about self-driving cars. That they are safer, better drivers than humans. That we can just be along for the ride. That it will save lives, and improve the quality of all of our lives. Insurance rates go down. The list goes on.

In fact, self-driving cars are already here, to some extent. Just consider the features available today from Tesla, for example, that has already added a self-driving feature to its Model S. Other automakers are working on similar features.

As far as safety goes, according to one study quoted in a recent Time Magazine article, converting just 10% of the U.S. vehicle fleet to self-driving cars would reduce the number of accidents each year by 211,000 and save 1,100 lives. That’s an impressive prediction.

Automakers around the world are clamoring to figure this all out now, but it is complicated to create the algorithms that reflect the more nuanced aspects of driving such as the interplay between drivers and pedestrians, for example. In fact, Google reported one of its self-driving cars was involved in an accident on Feb. 14 involving a bus.

These issues are far from resolved and require much more research and development as evidenced by U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx discussing at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit in January that part of President Obama’s proposal to improve transportation includes a 10-year, nearly $4 billion investment to accelerate the development and adoption of safe vehicle automation through real-world pilot projects. 

Foxx also said the U.S. Department of Transportation is removing potential roadblocks to the integration of innovative, transformational automotive technology that can significantly improve safety, mobility, and sustainability.

This is also why researchers across academia and industry are feverishly working on these issues, and why we have begun to cover them here at Semiconductor Engineering given the close partnerships that are strengthening in the automotive ecosystem.

So while all of the technology to enable self-driving cars is fascinating in its sophistication, I selfishly fear an invasion of my privacy. Maybe I want to sing alone in my car, at the top of my lungs, without worrying about the numerous sensors in the car recording my every note. Maybe I want to be able to put my Mini Cooper in Sport mode and maneuver myself out of a sticky situation versus being a passive rider in the car. No more steering wheel? No more gearshift?

The sense of being in control will be gone, as will the unique feeling of freedom that only a car provides. Perhaps this makes me a bit old-fashioned but I know that I am not alone in this sentiment. The trouble is that it seems likely that ultimately, none of us will have the choice at the end of the day.



  • Bernard

    Ann – Brian Bailey was telling me about algorithms for autonomous cars being so conservative and safety conscious that at 4-way stops or circles or freeway merges, they get stuck because they never compute enough safety margin to proceed. What an image – autonomous cars deadlocked everywhere, waiting for an opening that may never appear :)

    • Ann Steffora Mutschler

      Sorry for the delay in my reply! That is indeed quite an image, and given the propensity for software to lock up, I can absolutely see this happening!

  • realjjj

    The sensors don’t have to send or keep private data. Usually when detecting a problem, it is preferable to try to find a few viable solutions before deciding that there is a problem.
    As for losing that feeling of freedom,that’s just autosuggestion. You don’t feel any such stress when riding a bus, cab, plane or train. And there are lots of sports that offer a lot more than driving. From skiing to ,even, just riding a mountain bike. Even those tiny sub-Segway like devices might be fun to ride, that’s the reason for most purchases today even is most people are simply too arrogant to consider them.
    The most accessible and used alternative will be VR. it can enable a lot of new sensations in the comfort of our homes.

    And there are other key dynamics when it comes to cars.. We actually need to reclaim the space we lost to cars and turn our cities into more enjoyable places. Autonomous cars don’t solve much in that regard and might be a big negative in locations where public transportation is very popular.
    Including an interesting link with pictures of Amsterdam before (when cars ruled) and now http://sustainableamsterdam.com/2015/12/livable-cities-campaign/

    • Ann Steffora Mutschler

      Sorry it took me so long to reply. That link is fantastic! Thank you for sharing it. Interestingly, I found myself ready to dismiss the idea you suggested about reclaiming the space lost to cars until I looked through those photos. :-)