The Road To Self-Driving Cars

New tech could put AI in the driver’s seat.Source: Photo by A. L. on Unsplash

Are you ready to turn over the driver’s seat to a robot? We already let AI take the reins for things like surgeries and flight plans, so self-driving cars almost seem like a no-brainer. Not having to drive could be more convenient, safer, and do away with some traffic problems. But not everyone is so quick to embrace the technology, due to safety concerns. So can we trust them? For now, a lot of us would rather gamble in a fun online casino than on the road. Here’s where things stand…and where they might be headed.


From sci-fi to reality

Like hovercrafts and computer glasses, self-driving cars are straight out of our 80s dreams of what the future would be like. Some of these predictions were right (though the glasses didn’t turn out to be that cool), and self-driving cars could be the next futuristic dream turned reality. Big companies like Google and Tesla are investigating how to make autonomous cars safe and practical, but there are still some doubters.

Some self-driving cars are already hitting the road in pilot projects, but they’re a long way off from the norm. The Russian company Yandex has created self-driving cars that they’re testing in Russia and Israel with safety drivers in the passenger seat to hit the brakes if something goes wrong. Google’s Waymo project is now offering driverless car experiences in Phoenix. People in a pilot group can call a Waymo cab like the rest of us would call an Uber and be taken to their destination alone—with no one in the driver’s seat.

How does it work?

Think about all the tiny decisions you have to make while driving. Do you have time to make that light? Is the driver behind you trying to pass? Is that dog going to run out in the road? Should you get over when you see an ambulance coming? If a road is closed, how do you get to your destination?

In order to be safe and practical, self-driving cars have to be able to answer those questions as fast, or faster, than a human brain can. To do it, they rely on GPS and LIDAR technology. It’s like radar, but with lasers, and it’s able to detect just about everything around it and then the computer will figure out what to do about it. But there are some problems that are a little too hard for the computer—places where we use our judgement and intuition and a computer can’t.

For example, if you see a policeman directing traffic in an intersection, you know what to do. But a computer that can’t read the hand signals properly wouldn’t. Countless engineers and designers are responsible for thinking of every exceptional situation and programming the car to deal with it.

Is it safe?

With so many possible scenarios, it’s hard to believe that a car could really make all the decisions that a driver can. In all the years of testing self-driving cars, there has only been one fatal flaw: when a self-driving Uber in Arizona hit and killed a woman in 2018. This was still blamed on human error though, because they determined the safety driver (the person in the passenger seat during testing) was distracted, not the computer.

The safety concerns aren’t just about the cars themselves, though. Self-driving cars open up a whole question about cybersecurity, too. It’s not hard to imagine a doomsday scenario where cars get hacked or gridlocked, leaving people in danger, stranded, or worse.

There are a lot of things about self-driving cars that can be safer than cars with human drivers, though. Computers can’t get tired, distracted, intoxicated, or angry at other drivers (hopefully). They can do in-the-moment calculations of speed and distance to make sure they don’t hit anything on the road in a way that people really can’t. According to the Eno Center for Transportation think tank, driver error causes 90% of all crashes. Self-driving cars could reduce or even eliminate that.

Self-driving cars have to learn all the scenarios. Source: Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

What’s next?

For self-driving cars to take off, people will have to trust the AI behind the wheel and under the hood to get them places safely. Even if the technology is there, self-driving car companies will have to convince a reluctant public of the benefits. The technology would also have to be affordable enough for people to adopt it. So, are you ready to turn over your keys and let technology take the wheel?

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