Friday, January 31, 2014

Self-driving Cars

You can hardly turn around these days without hearing or seeing news about self-driving cars.  NPR interviews a Google engineer.  CBS does a segment with a Honda engineer.  Science shows on TV bring updates from the US and Europe demonstrating the latest features.  This article, for example, tells about work between Ford and MIT to give cars “intuition,” the ability to detect not-yet-visible dangers.  This all seems wonderful, but critical thinking and economic understanding often lead to discovery of unintended consequences.  What could lie ahead in the case of self-driving cars?

There are several steps in development.  We already have backup cameras and collision-warning/braking devices on some higher-end cars.  Even today “current vehicles can self-park, self-drive in slow-moving traffic and redirect drivers around heavy traffic. The second step will see vehicles communicate with one another, allowing them to wirelessly link up and travel together to ease congestion.  The third and final step, according to Ford, will be fully autonomous vehicles.”  The ultimate goal is the elimination of all traffic accidents, saving over 30,000 lives a year.

Imagine all the cars moving down the road at the same speed, evenly spaced, in a smooth flow, anticipating each other’s movements while the passengers relax and read, text or sleep.  It will be like having a personal chauffeur or riding on a small train.  It sounds like a dream.  Children born 50 years from now will wonder why we ever wanted to spend all that stressful time behind the wheel.

Now think more broadly.  If they can do that with cars, what about trucks and busses – and what about all the jobs that go with them?  Will future Americans just hop into taxis with no driver and enter their ID and destination on a touchscreen?  Will that smooth flow on the highways also include driverless 18-wheelers moving freight from warehouses to stores?  Will trash trucks, which have already replaced some workers with a hydraulic lift, soon replace the driver too?  Could someone design a robot to deliver mail from an autonomous vehicle?  Wouldn’t school buses be safer being driven by the computer than by a human, school buses with closed circuit cameras and other systems so that the kids dare not stir out of their seats?  Will all these jobs, including those of traffic cop, highway patrol and parking monitors, go the way of the elevator operator?  What happens to the insurance agents, processors, and investigators, and lawyers whose jobs depend on road mishaps?

It’s a short step from this seemingly innocent and very promising technology to a scary science fiction scenario; and with the prospect of saving 30,000 lives a year, there is really no stopping it.

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