Today, the media is awash with buzz about the inevitable arrival of autonomous automobiles, personal vehicles that could transport passengers under complete computer control. Writing for Forbes, David Galland predicts that ten million autonomous cars will be on American streets by 2020 (Galland). He expects the adoption of autonomous cars to have profound, transformative effects on our society, by “reducing the number of traffic accidents by upward of 90%,” offering new mobility options for seniors and people with disabilities, eliminating the need for expensive and scarce downtown parking, and “[banishing] the whole idea of rush hour … to the history books” (Galland). Ford plans to sell “true self-driving cars” without controls for human drivers such as pedals or steering wheels by 2021 (Isidore). Not to be left behind, US Senators Gary Peters and John Thune have announced they plan to introduce new legislation to foster the development of autonomous vehicles that will “[leave] room for innovators to reach their full potential” (“Joint Effort”). They believe that autonomous cars “have the potential to dramatically reduce the … lives lost on our roads and highways every year and fundamentally transform the way we get around” (“Joint Effort”).
But before we speculate on the long-term impacts of autonomous cars, and especially before we formulate sweeping national policies concerning them, we ought to consider just how soon they will become reality. There are difficult ethical, technical, and human interface challenges that the industry has not yet addressed and hard questions that our society has not yet answered. Should autonomous vehicles favor the survival of passengers or pedestrians in the event of an accident? How will we produce and maintain high-resolution maps of every road on which autonomous vehicles will be expected to operate? How will we keep passengers alert and prepared to retake control in the event of an emergency? We are not five years away from autonomous cars, as Ford claims, much less six months away from “full self-driving” Tesla vehicles, as CEO Elon Musk claims (@elonmusk). The barriers to designing safe and reliable autonomous cars are so massive that they will preclude their mainstream introduction for many decades, if not indefinitely. Continue reading “Self-Driving Cars: a Reality Check”