According to the U.S. government, autonomous cars will make vehicular travel safer and make people more productive by allowing them more time to work, read or engage in leisure activities as they travel from point A to point B. Some industry analyst, however, question whether the risk is worth the potential rewards, and they point to recent, deadly manufacturer defects by Toyota and General Motors to bolster their arguments.
Google’s fleet of autonomous vehicles has logged upwards of half a million miles on California highways, without incident, and last month the NHTSA laid the groundwork for new regulations that would require all new vehicles to be equipped with vehicle to vehicle technology. Acting NHTSA Administrator David Friedman says, “Decades from now, it’s likely we’ll look back at this time period as one in which the historical arc of transportation safety considerably changed for the better.”
Nearly lost in the excitement over the transformative potential of self-driving vehicles are some nagging legal and even ethical concerns. Former NHTSA administrator Joan Claybrook says, “Cars are meant to be driven by people, not machines. I have enough trouble trusting my computer, much less a computer to drive my car.”
Eno Center for Transportation president and CEO Joshua Schank disagrees. “The reality is that the vast, vast majority of accidents are caused by human error and computers are going to dramatically improve on people’s driving,” says Schank.
In addition to making vehicles safer, Schank says self-driving vehicles will reduce energy consumption and the production of greenhouse gases, and help reduce congestion on highways and in urban areas.
Proponents like Schank say autonomous vehicle technology will continue to improve, and make the concerns of its critics moot in the coming years. Indeed, the technology has come a long was in just the past decade.
In 2004 the Defense Department’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency offered a $1 million prize for any autonomous automaker whose entry could successfully navigate a 142-mile course between California and Nevada. None of the competitors was able to complete the course and win the prize.
Three years later, researchers at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University demonstrated
The pace of change has been rapid. Just 10 years ago, a self-driving-car competition held by the Defense Department’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency failed to produce a winner. Not a single entry was able to complete a 142-mile desert course between California and Nevada and claim the $1 million prize.
Five years later, in 2009, Google unveiled an autonomous car that was able to able to operate on busy California highways without incident. Last year, Google co-founder Sergey Brin said of the technology, “You can count on one hand the number of years until ordinary people can experience this.”