Autonomous Vehicles in the Modern Day

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Submitted by Colin Powers
on 02/12/18

Artificial Intelligence; the concept seems like something out of a science fiction book, but it’s becoming more and more prevalent as time goes on. Many of our day-to-day tasks are now becoming automated. Search engines, programming, medicine, and many other fields are using AI to simplify processes and eliminate the need to work so many hours. (Steve Lohr, 2016) (Dina Bass, 2016) In the Age of Technology, the fact that more tasks are becoming streamlined and automated has become necessary for society to focus on the more important issues and solve relevant problems. Many businesses, for example, have to repeatedly deal with numerous simplistic issues in regards to customer support and so switching to robotic answering machines streamlined the process for them. However, when people hear a robotic voice, they tend to perceive it as not really helpful with their problem. That’s why a new app called Pypestream was invented that connects businesses directly to their consumers via text, allowing them to no longer rely on humans. Similar to Artificial Assistants such as Siri and Google Assistant, this service is a robot that acts like a human and responds to customer’s questions, such as “What’s on sale?” or “Why did you charge me $5 last month?” (Sara O’Brien, 2016) A new direction for AI, one which could transform the way we travel from place to place, is through autonomous vehicles. Also known as self-driving cars, these vehicles allow the former driver to become the passenger, allowing for smoother and more reliable transportation.

Much research has been done in the field of driverless cars. One of the first recorded tests with a driverless car was in 1932, when a radio-controlled car drove through the streets of Fredericksburg, VA. (Free Lance-Star, 1932) Although the car was not really driving itself, it certainly inspired many experiments into cars that could. One pivotal experiment was performed by Dean Pomerleau in 1989. Dubbed the ALV, or Autonomous Land Vehicle, the car used a camera and laser range finder to follow roads on its own. (Dean Pomerleau, 1989) The first official driverless car, however, was introduced in 1999 via the ParkShuttle. Being designed as a public transportation system, the ParkShuttle did not have to travel long distances and only encountered relatively flat roads, making it more efficient and less in need of assistance. (Dick van Sluis, 2016) The ParkShuttle used an electronic map of the area in which it operated and plotted routes from point A to point B using a navigation program named FROG, or Free Ranging On Grid, that was developed for the vehicles. (Robert Lohmann, 2009) The most recent notable development in autonomous vehicles is Google’s project to create a self-driving car, which has been in development since 2009. In 2015, Google announced that only 14 accidents involving the google cars had occurred in the six years and two million miles of research. Furthermore, Chris Urmson, leader of the project, stated that every one of those collisions had been the fault of other drivers, not the automated car. (James Titcomb, 2015)

Judging from the fact that tech giants such as Google are putting years of work into this field, this clearly has potential to become very impactful overall on society in coming years. A large amount of money would be saved in fuel alone. The current fuel economy improvement when using cruise control rather than braking/throttling is 20-30%. By allowing artificial intelligence to be our cruise control, that would save America $158 billion per year. (Benjamin Zhang, 2014) Additionally, more and more people will be able to be more productive with their commuting time, giving them opportunities they wouldn’t have had before. According to Morgan Stanley, 75 billion hours were spent commuting in 2009. (Benjamin Zhang, 2014) “Assuming people work 25% of the time they are in a car and they are 90% as productive as they are when at a desk, $422 billion per year is to be generated from being able to work whilst driving.” (Benjamin Zhang, 2014) This quote from Morgan Stanley shows us how much we are really missing out on. If work could be done during the commute, not only would it gain income for more people, they would be able to possibly work more hours in total. But driving wouldn’t only be used for work. Families could use it as bonding time, playing board games together, enjoying each other’s company while travelling to and from events. In addition, the option of having robot chauffeurs would undoubtedly be safer. 90% of all accidents in 2009 were caused by human error. (Benjamin Zhang, 2014) If that human error was eliminated, those accidents wouldn’t happen, and more lives would be saved. Even more collisions would be eliminated if you consider the significant drop in traffic congestion accidents. 145 million commuters lose 38 hours each per year due to congestion. If the cost of time is $25 an hour, (based on the US median income of 50k per year) then the savings from congestion issues would be $138 billion. (Benjamin Zhang, 2014) Adding together the savings of accidents, fuel, congestion, and productivity, we get a total savings of $1.3 trillion dollars per year. (Benjamin Zhang, 2014) Therefore, the cost of funding self-driving cars would be well worth it.

However, even with all the benefits, the concept of being driven around by a machine might be unsettling to some people. After all, what if there’s a malfunction that results in a fatal accident? Our phones and computers aren’t perfectly reliable all the time. In addition, the car could potentially be hacked and driven off the road, the brakes suddenly activated, or other terrible outcomes. The FBI also warns of self-driving cars being used as weapons, like battering rams, or being loaded with explosives. (Mark Hanis, 2014)

A major consequence of self-driving vehicles becoming widespread would be the loss of countless jobs. The main outcry would be from truck, taxi and bus drivers. For example, there are 3.5 million truck drivers in the US, 250,000 taxi drivers, and 1 million bus drivers. That’s only the major businesses. Other people like postal drivers, food delivery services, and online drivers such as Uber would only add to that number. (John Dvorak, 2015) Another business that would be affected would be the auto insurance industry. Eliminating human errors would cause less accidents, causing a significant drop in the dependency on insurance. (Donald Light, 2012) Apart from job loss, self-driving cars also would have to rely on some sort of GPS system that might not work as well as we would like. While services like Google Maps is reliable most of the time, there have been some instances where it has led people into unfortunate situations. Unexpected changes in traffic patterns might also be an issue, such as construction zones, closed roads, possibly even rubble from nearby damaged structures. Having no reliable way to have knowledge of these roadblocks other than hoping someone else has reported it, the car would have to rely on its own sensors to guide it. The sensors at this point are not flawless, as they cannot always recognize every sign on the road. (Laura Bliss, 2017) If a sign has graffiti, that might pose a problem for now.

A large problem posed to the cars is the road itself and the condition it is in. The weather may cause a problem with regions like New England and parts of Canada experiencing major holdups due to ice and snow buildup. The weather cannot always be relied on; 477 deaths were reported in the winter of 2008-2009. Accidents like these are primarily not the driver’s fault, and cannot be solved by introducing self-driving cars. (Icyroadsafety.com, 2010) Another issue that has caused concern in that of advertisements. One source (Patrick Lin, 2014) suggests that cars might drive to a business that advertised via GPS technology, like what we see already happening in navigation services such as WAZE. Considering the state of most free services connected to the internet today, situations like this are not hard to imagine. Another larger issue with self-driving cars could be urban sprawl. More people will live farther from the city, due to the convenience of having more time during the commute. With more people living away from the city, but still commuting there, it could introduce segregation of people groups and foster class and racial conflicts. In addition to that, it would introduce carbon emission unlike what has been seen before. (Noah Smith, 2015)

Autonomous vehicles promise tremendous benefits to society but much research and consideration is still needed before it is rolled out. Companies such as Google are doing the right thing by investigating the feasibility of such an endeavor on a small scale before easing it into society. A world with fully autonomous drivers is still many years off, but when it happens, the impact will be enormous; changing how people perceive their commuting time. By eliminating such a menial task, people all over the world could salvage lost hours to connect, learn, create, and become better people which would result in a better world for everyone.

Submitted by Colin Powers
on 02/12/18

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