We’ve seen sci-fi be self-fulfilling prophecy in the past, with Star Trek communicators and Padds becoming smartphones and tablets, among many other things. Yet, there seems to be one staple of science fiction that has always seemed to languish in the “it’s been tested but not well” category. Flying cars? No, that’s just silly. Rather, self-driving vehicles.
This technology was very seriously proposed as long ago as the 1930s, but has been met time and again with either sociological or technological barriers that rendered it a pipe dream. So, what’s holding back development now, and why should we push for this technology to overcome what barriers it has left? Surely, it’s not computing technology at this point.
Ask Google. No, not as in running a web search, but rather actually talking to the company itself. For some time now, Google’s secret labs have been working on a from-scratch self-driving car concept that’s set to change the way we look at transportation … pretty much forever.
Integrating the laser and optic sensory systems, super-efficient motor and ultra-safe body design, Google’s self-driving car promises to change lives in ways we may not have even imagined originally.
Across the globe, millions of people live with medical difficulties that severely hinder or outright prevent the ability to drive. Physical impairments, epilepsy and visual impairments are only a tiny handful of problems which can make operating a vehicle safely and legally nigh impossible. Google’s technology promises sufferers of these impairments a new level of personal freedom and self-reliance that was never before possible, eliminating the need for reliance on others for transportation.
With such reliable transportation readily available, those unable to drive can enjoy greater liberties in where they choose to live, work and play – fail to mention a massive increase in potential employment made accessible as well.
Of course, such technology, if standardized, also offers to strongly reduce other issues such as accidents resulting from careless, aggressive, fatigued or inebriated drivers as well. Duke Energy cites the fact that Google’s cars are electric as a sign they could make a big dent in greenhouse emissions, and help make electric cars the de facto standard for automobiles in the future. Reducing road injuries and fatalities, lowering greenhouse emissions, increasing mobility for millions of our planet’s citizens sounds absolutely wonderful, but is it practical? What’s standing in the way, if their prototype works?
The biggest barriers at this point are sociological and logistical, plain and simple. A lot of people are reticent to trust a machine to transport them and their children safely without human input. This attitude, according to polls, is prevalent primarily in mothers. There have indeed been accidents with Google’s prototypes during live street tests which would seem to validate these fears – at least, they would were these accidents not a symptom of the logistical barrier nobody seems to be paying attention to.
Quite frankly, not a single one of the accidents was a result of the car-controlling computer making any kind of mistake. They were always the fault of other drivers on the road – human drivers. This leads to that logistical problem: if cars drive themselves, all cars should ideally drive themselves.
Unfortunately, this logistical problem cannot be solved in a traditional manner, because converting every vehicle to automatic, or replacing them, would be a nightmare and a costly one at that. This naturally leads to questions of ethics regarding fellow drivers, pedestrians and even animals on or around the road.
Google, and other companies hot on their heels such as Tesla have modeled their guidance software in a manner where its aggression can be adjusted, meaning these vehicles can be timid and polite drivers, or very aggressive power drivers.
How aggressive is too aggressive, or how timid is too timid? This is just one of a number of questions regarding the configuration of these devices which has not been but must soon be resolved. Along with this is the question of insurance policies and new laws governing this new class of vehicle and driver.
In short, nobody really knows the answers to these questions yet.
Google and Tesla have proven the technology is definitely ready, we merely need to be socially ready and socially responsible in adopting the technology. Given the benefits in mobility and safety for countless millions, it’ll be a debate worth having for certain.