Traditional Cars vs. Self-Driving Cars: Is Total Automation Inevitable on Our Roads

Although it seems to be a scenario straight from science fiction, many leaders in the automotive industry predict that within five to ten years, self-driving cars will not only be on the market but also be widely used. Obviously the auto industry stands to benefit from that. But will consumers benefit equally?

Where Did Self-Driving Cars Come From?

Americans were dreaming of fully automated highways as early as the 1939 New York World’s Fair. In 2009, someone finally got started on the self-driving car: Google.

During those early days at Google, driverless car technology was a crude setup: sensors attached in a circle to a remote-control rig atop the car. Today, self-driving cars are sophisticated and truly autonomous. The sensors are built directly into the car, and software within the car tells the car where to go, when to stop, and more.

Although Google led the charge toward self-driving cars, the tech and manufacturing company Tesla quickly followed. Automakers like Toyota and GM have latched onto the idea as well and are in the process of applying for patents. And they’re not shy about pushing the benefits.

Why Driverless Cars?

Proponents of driverless car technology, which are usually the tech and auto manufacturers themselves, have a long list of benefits to the consumer.

Convenience. Instead of spending time and energy to watch the road, you can do whatever you like. Self-driving cars take the best aspects of traditional travel — the hands-free mode of bus or train, the solitude of a private car — and puts them into one machine.

Safety. Most car accidents are caused by driver error. The Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets (SDCSS), an organization backed by Ford, Google, Uber, Lyft, and Volvo, claims that autonomous vehicles are safer than cars with human drivers because the software can make spacial and speed calculations with extreme precision, eliminating driver error and preventing crashes.

Egalitarianism. The SDCSS also claims that these vehicles would make transportation more egalitarian, since those who otherwise couldn’t drive — the elderly or the vision-impaired, for instance — would be able to travel solo in an autonomous vehicle.

More efficient roads. These companies appear to have visions not only of selling their cars to consumers but also potentially replacing car ownership altogether, years down the road. Google and Uber are going head-to-head in the effort to make a fleet of autonomous cars available for rent in high-traffic areas. In theory, these fleets would make self-driving car travel so affordable and so readily available that people wouldn’t need to buy their own. In turn, this could cut down on the space used for parking lots and number of cars manufactured and make streets and cities more efficient.

Why Not Driverless Cars?

Not everyone is on board with self-driving cars, though — and for a variety of reasons.

Growing pains. Antagonists of self-driving technology say that while autonomous cars can follow the rules of the road precisely, they’re not as good at predicting human behavior. That means that while autonomous cars are less likely to cause accidents, they could still be in them frequently: typically being hit by cars driven by people. So while comparatively few accidents might happen between autonomous cars one day, until then the accident rate may not change — it will just be different vehicles getting hit. Also, as self-driving cars become more ubiquitous, it may become considered a safety hazard to have traditional cars on the road, and the traditional driving experience may disappear.

Cost. Self-driving cars may increase opportunities for some (the vision impaired, the elderly), but there’s also a chance the costs could be prohibitive for lower-income folks.

Many people don’t want them. Many people are either ambivalent about or totally against getting autonomous features on their next vehicle. They tend to see the technology as unproven and potentially dangerous, and some people would rather have a cheaper car. The biggest con for some is that they simply like driving cars and don’t want to yield control. Predictably, older drivers are resistant to the new technology. But while technology is typically seen as the purview of the young, a significant portion of newer drivers actually don’t want fully automated cars, either.

Known technical limitations. Most road tests for autonomous vehicles come from data collected on sunny days in cities with well-maintained roads. Since self-driving cars rely on good infrastructure to run, some models have trouble with faded lane paint, burned-out traffic lights, and broken or missing signs. The solution is more and better sensors, but this may raise the costs of autonomous vehicles to prohibitive prices.

Partial vs. Full Autonomy in Self-Driving Cars

Some people think of automation as a simple distinction: a car is autonomous or it isn’t. But SAE International, a professional organization for people in the transportation industry, actually breaks automation into six separate stages: no automation, driver assistance, partial automation, conditional automation, high automation, and full automation.

It’s becoming more and more common to see driver assistance tools such as proximity warnings and backup cameras. Ford and Audi have had cars that can partially automate parallel parking for a few years now, and a recent software update has introduced an Autosteer feature to the Tesla Model S: this conditional automation keeps the car in the current lane and moving with the flow of traffic.

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