Driverless Cars Become a Reality

For decades now, popular culture has been intimating that flying cars and jetpacks are just around the corner, from The Jetsons and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang in the 60s to Back to the Future and Blade Runner in the 80s to The Fifth Element in 1997, to mention a few. But it was only recently that the technology and processing power needed for the somewhat less picturesque autonomous cars were developed. In 2012 California governor Jerry Brown signed a bill that would allow the use of autonomous cars (so long as the driver can take over the manual controls) on public roads from June 2015 and just recently Google unveiled its latest two-seater driverless pod portotype.

We recently wrote about the dangers of distracted and aggressive driving, as well as about some initiatives, like Vision Zero, that address these and other traffic safety and efficiency problems (like the underlying road design issues that affect driving adversely). Vision Zero quote that nearly 1.2 million deaths occur in traffic across the world every year. This staggering number should make at least lowering the fatality rates our priority. Of course, defensive driving remains your best bet for the time being, but with people so prone to error, fatigue, distraction and frustration, could the answer to the problem lie in just doing away with the fallible human factor?

As all new technologies, the Google autonomous pods will most likely take time to perfect. Currently its top speed is 25mph and it runs on electricity. What seems slightly disconcerting is that, unlike some car makers, like Nissan, Volvo, Audi, Lexus or Toyota, who have also been developing autonomous technology, Google’s latest addition does not alternate between driverless and steered-by-a-human modes. Instead of being a standard car with the added option of autopilot, there is only a “Start” and “Stop” button and the rest is done by computer, sensors, and the Internet. (However, in order to comply with the law, the first 100 versions to be used on California roads will retain manual controls as well.)

With cars a symbol of freedom, mobility and progress, the shift from being at the wheel and steering to being chauffeured by an inanimate computer may not be to everyone’s liking. Driving gives us the feeling (or illusion) of being in control and independent. Some people have a hard time even riding in the passenger seat. As Larry David complains to his wife on Curb Your Enthusiasm: “I really don’t like not driving […] I don’t feel like I have a personality in this seat”.

For now, driverless cars appear novel and exotic, and, like most new things, continue to spark both interest and scepticism. Before they become more widespread, there are a number of questions that call for discussion, and we explore some in our next articles.

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