Image credit: smoothgroover22, Flickr

The idea of having a car drive for you is becoming increasingly popular in today’s world. Self-driving cars, otherwise known as autonomous cars, refer to vehicles that are capable of driving themselves without the need for a person to control it. Many of us are reliant on our cars to get us to where we want to go. This is especially true if we live in an area that lacks an adequate public transportation system. In a city where a good portion of one’s day involves sitting in the car (like Jakarta), owning a self-driving car can mean a huge difference in one’s life.

Although it has only been quite recently where we are seeing some promising prototypes of autonomous vehicles, this idea was born almost a century ago. Back in the early part of the 20th century, the term “phantom auto” was popular and it basically has the same meaning to the term we use today. Though technically ‘driverless’, such vehicles were not driven by a computer, but by a remote control. Another person would have to follow the phantom auto with another car in order to control it. It was a very fascinating concept at the time to see a car drive without anyone sitting on the driver’s seat. However, still relying on a person rather than an automatic system to control the car, phantom autos are prone to the same problems as human-driven cars. Thanks to rise of AI technology, we can move beyond these remote-controlled vehicles into cars that are smart enough to drive themselves without any human input. 

Nowadays, many companies are designing their own autonomous cars, some of the more notable ones being Google and Tesla. Although these cars still need a person inside to take over should anything go wrong, we are soon getting to a point where cars will be intelligent enough to handle anything on their own, eliminating the need for steering wheels, gas pedals and any other control mechanism whatsoever.

As of now, if someone wanted to drive a car, he or she would first need to get a driver’s license. You actually need to fulfil a set of criteria in order to qualify. You need to be at least a certain age, you need to be physically able to drive and so on. With driverless cars, many of these restrictions will no longer be relevant. If your car can drive for you, there really is no reason to require someone to be able to drive before being allowing them to use one. This will make it possible for those with disabilities or those too old to drive, for example, to get to where they want to go with a car without anyone driving for them. It is liberating. In the very near future, no matter who you are, no matter what happens, you will be able to go wherever you want to go on your own.

Independence aside, self-driving cars will be able to tackle a growing global problem – traffic accidents. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), every year 1.25 million deaths are caused by traffic-related incidents. Now consider the fact that the vast majority of these accidents are caused by an error made by the driver. In the United States, for example, 94% of accidents are caused by human error. If the human aspect of driving is removed, the majority of accidents can be prevented. This is a huge deal, considering the fact that the WHO predicts that if nothing is done about the issue, by 2030, road crashes will be the world’s 7th leading cause of death. 

Recently, however, the world has questioned the safety of self-driving cars after a Tesla Model S crashed into a truck, confusing it for the sky. The accident killed the occupant of the car. As shocking as such an incident would seem, we must remember that statistically, one is still far more likely to die in a vehicle driven by a human than in a car that has an automatic system controlling it. According to Tesla, the first known death caused by their autopilot system happened after a total travelled distance of 130 million miles. Compare this to a death for every 94 million miles covered by human-driven vehicles in the United States and it is clear that autonomous vehicles are safer than the cars that we drive today. As improvements and developments continue to be made in the technology, the chances of a self-driving car causing an accident will shrink even more. Autonomous cars, once improved, will have the potential to save millions of lives around the world.

Of course, there are a number of issues that will have to be addressed before these cars can be released to the public. One commonly discussed topic is the ethics surrounding the technology. Many ethical issues arise if you think about it. When confronted with an impossible situation where the car’s system is forced to make a decision resulting in either the death of its occupant or the death of a pedestrian, how should the car react? Who has the authority to make such a decision? The list of questions goes on and on. Even though we are already beginning to have a taste of self-driving cars, more time will be needed for policymakers, ethicists and everyone involved in the creation of this technology to figure these things out.

Another significant issue is the possibility of someone hacking into an autonomous car’s system and taking over. Often we hear about computers being infected with viruses, or a hacker successfully finding his or her way to someone else’s personal online accounts. There is no reason to think that a self-driving car’s onboard computers are any safer from such threats. The security of the system will be a very important aspect to consider. If you think about it though, for decades updates and software patches have been written for computers, and yet new ways are still being discovered to compromise systems. A car’s autopilot system can implement the highest level of security possible, but there always seem to be a risk for hackers to find some way to get into the system.

These are just two of the several problems that will have to be discussed and solved before we can see autonomous cars on the road, but we are definitely getting there as the technology gets more sophisticated and laws and policies are catching up.

It will be a while before we can buy our very own driverless cars, but various companies are planning on using the concept in the near future. Delphi Automotive, for example, plans to operate six driverless taxis in Singapore in 2017, eventually expanding to 50 taxis by 2019. The company predicts that these new cars can offer fares three times less than traditional taxis. A futuristic and affordable way to travel, if the project succeeds it will not be long before such vehicles will be commonplace around the world. This is just one of the many world-changing ideas that will soon be thought of involving autonomous cars. Self-driving cars are bigger than just simply changing the way we travel – they have the power to change the way we live our lives.

Published by Johnatan F