The latest progress and challenges to self-driving cars

Not everybody enjoys a tedious 40-minute journey by car to work early in the morning. Especially when you have to drive, park, drop your kids at school and then drive through the busy traffic again.

Now imagine that instead of getting into a normal car, you’re getting inside a Wifi-equipped, self-driving car. Possibly Google’s or Tesla’s.

That would be life changing for everybody, wouldn’t it?  (Though the news may not be positively perceived by the cab industry and Uber.) Whether that sounds optimistic or delusional, it is happening. But how far away are we till we actually see driverless cars sweeping our streets?
Almost a year ago, the UK government announced trials for driverless car up to 3 selected cities. And this year in February, the government gave a green light to driverless car projects which will receive £20m from the Intelligent Mobility Fund. According to WIRED, ‘driverless cars will be tested on UK motorways from 2017’.

Can regulations keep up?

What happened to hoverboards won’t likely to happen to driverless cars. But having the right regulation is not a simple matter. The regulatory framework would need to be both technological savvy and encouraging at the same time. Not to mention that it also needs to safeguard the motorcyclists. Notwithstanding the complexity, we’re pretty optimistic about the effectiveness of the legal framework for self-driving cars. Given the enormous, potential economic boost that it can bring to our society, we just don’t see why the government wouldn’t be progressive about this.

In fact, the UK government is pretty committed to lead world in the autonomous car technologies with £100 million budget to invest in a range of new transport projects. The fovernment also announced the launch of a consultation this summer to get rid of regulatory barriers to ‘allow driverless cars on England’s major roads’.

Safer, faster, and greener

So here we go, the technologies we need it out there. We already have a good number of autonomous cars cruising some roads. And more importantly, the government is committed to invest in the infrastructure and regulatory frameworks. But the real barriers might be in the minds of UK drivers.

While self-driving cars may sound like the logical solution for better life, the majority of UK drivers still don’t think its safe. As Financial Times has revealed, around 45% of those surveyed expressed the idea of self-driving vehicles very unappealing. It is fair to judge something unsafe if you are not controlling it. So what kind of concerns people bear, or at least we hear so far?  

  • Remote kidnapping

While it may be a little far-fetched, it is still possible that a driverless car falls at the helm of an anonymous hacker. As illustrated by TNW, what if hackers have the control of everything inside the car from windows to door locks and the fate of those lives inside it? But is it plausible? Even it happens one day, it won’t likely to be as dramatic as we expect from Hollywood movies. ‘The automotive industry will have to continually put safeguards in place to try and shield against this sort of eventuality.’  

  • Killer machine    

Now even more far-fetching as it might sound, MIT technology review showed the ethical dilemma of algorithmic morality’. In the event of unavoidable accident, should the car be programmed to minimise the causality, even though that entails sacrificing the occupants? Or should it be told to safeguard the occupants as the top priority? A real thorny – and distressing issue here. Yet, what most people tend to forget – or just turn blind eye to – is that there would be much more accidents and casualties from driving ordinary cars accidents. This brings me to the last, yet definitely not the least issue. 

  • Accidents

The survey revealed that biggest concern that ‘they believed that an autonomous car would not be able to avoid an accident’. The reality is quite opposite – cars with greater autonomy will be much safer than ordinary ones. Given that over 90 precent of accidents are the result of human error (sadly motor accidents kill 1.2m deaths a year globally), it is actually wiser to opt for autonomous cars. Machines won’t get distracted by Facebook notifications or suffer from drowsiness.

Innovation vs the public misbelief?

‘The results suggest that winning over the public may be just as large a hurdle for the industry as designing the technology and winning regulatory approval to roll it out.’ – The Financial Times.

Once the famous pioneer and inventor Henry Ford said “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses”. Now, that quote pretty much sums up why engineers and designers simply shouldn’t listen to customers at all. It’s not naive to imagine that when lifts first came out, many had sleepless nights worrying about the potential killer machines. And, it would be a lie to say that accident won’t happen as people still die from lift-related accidents. But then again, the question is how much of those accidents are caused by human error? Way too many.

What do you think?

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