The technical reality of autonomous cars is coming sooner than you think, but societal acceptance of autonomous cars may be some way off. Technologies such as adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping assist make the tip of this iceberg among production cars, while Google has already done extensive testing of an autonomous car system. Automakers are beginning their own self-driving car programs, and the Department of Transportation is running tests of vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communication, an important safety technology that will also play a key role for autonomous cars.
But not everyone likes the idea of self-driving cars. CNET editors Wayne Cunningham and Antuan Goodwin took opposite sides on the issue, arguing for and against. Add your own opinion of autonomous cars in our comments section.
Love for autonomous cars
I love driving, but I also love the idea of cars that can drive themselves. My colleague Antuan Goodwin feels the same way about driving, but is not so keen on self-driving cars. Let me offer a few reasons that might sway your own opinion about why I want autonomous cars on the road.
Using 360-degree sensors that do not get distracted plus vehicle-to-vehicle communication for over-the-horizon perception, autonomous cars will not crash. Automotive sensors can create a much better perception of the world than our frequently interrupted 200-degree field of vision. With these sensors in place, making cars that do not crash comes down to programming.
Making crashes a thing of the past not only protects us from death and injury, but also eliminates property damage, reduces traffic problems, and should bring down car insurance rates. Antuan thinks that autonomous cars would be subject to major technical failure, but cars are not like cell phones or computers. Testing is much more rigorous for automotive components. Automakers comply with published standards intended to make crucial automotive systems as bulletproof as possible.
No moving violations
While the highway patrol talks a good game about issuing speeding tickets to protect public safety, we all know that they conduct enforcement stops with no obvious pattern. You could merely be keeping up with traffic on the freeway when an officer picks you out of the pack, possibly based on your car's color. Some officers get sneaky and hang out at the bottom of a hill, picking off cars that naturally pick up a little speed, or look for drivers engaged in perfectly safe passing maneuvers on the highways.
The antidote to having points on your record, and subsequently higher insurance rates, is the autonomous car. Antuan argues that autonomous cars will make driving boring, but the majority of driving, commuting, and errand-running, is already boring. Let the car drive itself at these times, when its programming will not violate traffic laws. You may get the occasional ticket when taking the wheel for some weekend driving on fun roads, but not for absent-mindedly speeding down the highway.
Transportation for the elderly
As we age, our perception and reaction times degrade. It's the sad truth of being part of nature. People who enjoyed the freedom of vehicular transportation their entire lives find themselves facing reduced mobility, reliant on helpful relatives and children or community transportation services for senior citizens. What used to be a quick jaunt to the grocery store now becomes an odyssey of begging others for a ride.
With autonomous cars, senior citizens can retain all the freedom they had when younger. Get in the car, tell it where you need to go, and it takes off, conducting its aged passenger in perfect safety. No more will families have to go out of their way to pick up Grandma for a dinner out; she can meet everyone at the restaurant, arriving with the full confidence that independence brings.
Car valet parks itself
One of the worst types of driving is cruising for a parking spot. You should be focusing on the road ahead, but you have to be constantly scanning to the sides for open spaces. After finding a spot, you then have to hike to your actual destination. Parking lot traffic snarls during the holidays end up in fights. Glad tidings to all, indeed.
The parking problem literally goes away when your car can drop you off at your destination, drive off to find parking on its own, then come back to pick you up whenever you are ready. Parking is actually one of the problems that automakers want to address with autonomous cars, and they have envisaged exactly this scenario. Technology can give us all chauffeur-driven cars.
Productive commute time
Slogging through traffic in the morning and evening, going to and from work an hour or so either way, the necessity of eyes on the road means 2 hours a day out of your life. That's 10 hours per week wasted in traffic, 500 hours a year with time off for vacation, time that could have been used much more fruitfully.
How about your car does the driving, and you spend your time going through the morning e-mail, making calls, and generally setting up the work day. By the time you get to the office, you're on a roll, getting stuff done. Eventually, your commute becomes part of the workday, so you can jump in your car at the time you used to have to be at your desk. What are you going to do with 500 hours of extra free time each year?
Always have a designated driver
Anti-drunk-driving campaigns highlight the self-worth and sense of responsibility gained by being a designated driver, but they don't tell you that hanging out with a bunch of drunken people is extremely tedious, if you happen to be sober. And how many times have you had to refuse drinks just as the party looks like it's becoming fun, because you have to drive home at the end of the evening?
An autonomous car should certainly be able to double as your designated driver. Current thinking among automakers is that you, as the driver, would still be responsible for the car's behavior, so could still get a DUI even if the car is driving perfectly. But once trust is built by reliable and safe autonomous cars, it would then make sense, and result in safer roads, if we let cars bring their owners home from bars and parties.
Reasons to resist our robo-car overlords
We're slowly creeping toward robo-cars now -- adaptive cruise control here, automatic parking there -- and drivers will be wary of the first generation of truly autonomous, self-driving cars. They should be; this technology is potentially dangerous in both literal and figurative ways that I'll point out below. Don't get me wrong, I'm not some sort of tin-foil-hat-wearing Luddite. However, I do feel that someone needs to play the devil's advocate and point out potential issues before the autonomous car is upon us.
When things go wrong, they could go very wrong
Eventually, drivers will get used to the idea and give over more and more control to the machine and its software. But what happens when you car misjudges the distance to the wall at the back of your garage and ends up in your living room? Or when something goes wrong at highway speeds and you're stuck along for the ride?
"HAL, pull over and let me out!"
"I can't do that, Dave."
When the cars can drive themselves, drivers will probably pay less attention to the daily operation of the vehicle, not noticing small glitches until they're big issues. Outside of glitches, more opportunities for malicious third parties as electronic controls spread throughout the vehicle. One day, a carjacking could be as easy as car-hacking.
Self-driving cars will still have to deal with humans in nonautonomous cars
According to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics, there are more than 250 million registered passenger vehicles on the road in the U.S. I'd be willing to guess that a substantial majority of those cars were built pre-turn-of-the-century and that most of them will still be on the road when autonomous car hit the road in about 10 to 15 years. That means that autonomous cars will have to contend with these cars and their drivers.
Dealing with people requires natural intuitive and improvisational skills that most of us take for granted. Should I be watching the brake lights two cars ahead of me because the guy directly ahead has a phone glued to his face? Is that minivan mom yelling at her kids or watching the road? Is that bro in the Ultimate Driving Machine going to cut me off? (Of course he is.)
I don't know about you, but I don't trust most humans to drive on the road with other human drivers, so you'll forgive me if I'm a bit hesitant to turn computers loose on the road with them.
Autonomy may actually increase congestion
Wayne points out that autonomous cars could one day self-valet, but sending an empty car to look for a parking spot while you grab an earlier place in line for brunch is just the beginning of a slippery slope. What happens if the car can't find a parking spot? Does it just circle the block endlessly until you're done eating? Does it go all the way home?
I'm sure that a connected robo-car could send you its GPS location, so that you could find it later, but we're already at the bottom of the "I'm too lazy to walk to/from a parking spot" slope at this point, so these drivers will probably also be remotely calling for their robo-cars to come pick them up at the door.
Also, now more people who would have otherwise walked relatively short distances or taken public transportation will elect to just drive. Add these new drivers to the armies of empty "self-valeting" cars looking for places to wait until their owners call them, and before you know it, the roads are thick with metal.
Privacy potentially goes out of the window
These self-driving cars will presumably need to communicate with the grid, the cloud, or at least other vehicles in order to operate in the world at large. They'll also likely keep an activity log for service and debugging. That's not so bad, right? Wrong.
What this means is that someone -- whether it's your insurance company, the automaker, or your local dealer, or even local law enforcement -- will have yet another means to track your every coming and going. Now I don't think that I have anything to hide from any of these entities, but it gives me the creeps.
And what happens when that data ends up in the hands of the wrong people?
Who's at fault when something goes wrong?
Wayne hopes that the self-driving car will signal an end to moving violations and accidents. While I agree that we'll see a reduction, I don't think that we'll ever see a true end. Technology is fallible, just like the people who created it. I expect that we'll see a few spectacular debacles in the first few years of autonomous cars while unforeseen kinks are worked out.
But when things inevitably go wrong -- when your car hits something or simply exceeds the speed limit because of a glitch in the mapping software -- who is at fault? Is it you, the owner of the robo-car? The automaker that built the car? The tier-one software provider that the automaker contracted to develop the visual recognition software that reads the street signs? This can't possibly end well for anyone involved.
Does driving really need to get more boring?
We often get so fixated on the getting from point A to B with as little effort as possible, that we forget about all of the awesome stuff that gets passed along the way.
So many in my generation grew up not knowing about goofy roadside attractions or meeting weird people in cool small towns, because we were born well after the Interstate Highway System allowed our parents to simply skip everything between where they were and where they wanted to be. (Fortunately, my parents made sure that my brother and I learned about places like Ruby Falls in Tennessee, South of the Border on the boundary between the Carolinas, and dozens of other places off the beaten path.)
Where am I going with this? I imagine that autonomous cars will eventually have this same effect on neighborhoods. With our cars choosing the most efficient routes through town and while our eyes are glued to our smartphones and tablets, everything between where we are and where we're going gets missed. No more randomly wandering past cool shops because of a missed turn. No more discovering wonderful, hidden restaurants, because you spotted a place on the way to the nearby chain.
Goodbye, sense of exploration; you'll be missed.