If the media is anything to go by, fully self-driving cars will be appearing on a road near you very soon. The British government is an enthusiastic leader in autonomous technology and is investing hundreds of millions of pounds in trials and development. Many car manufacturers are developing autonomous vehicles as we speak and are obviously keen to get their models on the road as soon as possible.
However, while the race is on to launch driverless cars onto the mass market, it may yet be five or more years before we can buy one. In the meantime, we can scratch our heads and wonder whether self-driving cars really are such a good idea.
The pros of autonomous cars
Eliminating human error and distraction: Instead of relying on human error, which is intrinsically flawed, computers can eliminate the possibility of being distracted or making a mistake behind the wheel. Already, automatic modes in many new vehicles enable the car to park itself, cruise down a motorway, change lanes, and brake when approaching traffic.
Fewer accidents, casualties, and fatalities: With human error out of the equation, we should see a dramatic reduction in road traffic accidents and other incidents involving driving a car. In this way, the new technology can make a substantial contribution to preventing serious injury and saving lives.
No more bad driving behavior: Human beings are emotional creatures who are known on occasion to make bad decisions. Road rage, for instance, can have unpleasant consequences, while drunk driving is downright dangerous. Computers won’t indulge in tailgating, flip the middle finger, or drink alcohol.
Good news for disabled people and seniors: Those suffering from disabilities, impaired mobility, or slower reactions should find it much easier and comfortable to get around by car. Without the need to drive the car themselves, they can lead more independent lives.
Faster travel time: A driverless car should be safe on the road at slow or fast speeds. In fact, since they’ll be driven by computers and eliminate human error as a cause for accidents, higher speeds should be possible.
Cheaper insurance: If car insurance companies get on board with driverless cars, this could make a real difference to your premiums. Since the insurance risk will be based mainly on the car rather than the driver, there’s every reason to expect premiums to come down.
Saving emergency services’ resources: With no traffic incidents, speeding, or careless driving offenses to deal with, our emergency services will be able to redirect their efforts and dedicate their resources to other areas where they are required.
The cons of autonomous cars
No human override to prevent accidents: While eliminating human error will no doubt lower the rate of accidents, some accidents may be caused by a computer glitch. Unless there’s an emergency human override capability, the accident won’t be able to be prevented, with hair-raising consequences.
Cars not suitable for all road conditions: Driverless car technology may not be able to cope with unforeseen weather conditions such as snow and ice. Can you trust the car to be able to drive itself effectively and safely when its laser sensors are obscured by snow?
Changes to road layout and traffic systems: The physical and technological changes that will need to be made to our roads and infrastructure to accommodate autonomous vehicles will be extensive, urgent, and expensive.
Security concerns: Like all computer systems, Internet-connected vehicles have an intrinsic weakness in that their security can be compromised. Vulnerability to hacking could mean that private car data can be stolen, and cars could even be hijacked electronically.
Lack of learning and understanding: Computer-controlled self-driving vehicles will have to be taught how to predict and understand human signs, facial expressions, and body language that we easily recognize and take for granted.
Job losses for driving professionals: People who drive for a living, such as truck, bus, and taxi drivers, may be at risk of losing their livelihood if their jobs are performed by autonomous vehicles instead.
Forgetting our driving skills: Without regular practice, won’t we all forget how to drive a car? It’s an essential skill that we may need to fall back on whenever the situation demands it, but we may be less confident drivers just at the wrong time.
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