I’m a fan of self-driving cars, and I try to keep up with the latest news in regards to the technology, and I’ve written a couple of posts that relate to the ethics of such technologies.
Today, the Wall Street Journal had a story about a visit to a test track used by Waymo, one of the companies on the leading edge of self-driving technology.
Here’s a description of the test ride that the reporter got to go on:
“During the demonstration, the vehicle slowly moved out of the parking lot after the start button was pushed. Passengers rode in the back seats and the rear screens showed an animated version of the van navigating the track.
… During the seven-minute ride, the van drove around a test track set up to mimic driving conditions, including a roundabout, construction-zone cones and merging traffic. A bicyclist passed by in the van’s blind spot and pedestrians popped up along the route, though neither scenario fazed the van.
In addition to its button to start the vehicle, Waymo has others to call for help, pull the vehicle over and lock or unlock the doors. A push of the call button summoned a woman in a call center in Austin, Texas.”
I am quite excited by this technology, and it seems like I’m not the only one. Here are a few of the comments to the article (and surprisingly only one of the 18 comments got political), all of which highlight the potential benefits of self-driving cars:
- … impact will not be confined to car companies, ride hailing and finance companies but change the whole ecosystem of gas stations, service stations and dealerships. Urban planning and even property markets will change hugely with less need for parking spaces and productive commutes. There will even be an impact in healthcare with so many fewer ER patients and organs for transplant.
- The value of self driving cars is two fold. First and most obviously is accidents. AI doesn’t get distracted, AI doesn’t get tired, AI doesn’t get bored. About 40,000 people die each year in the US due to automotive accidents and the total financial cost is around 750 Billion dollars. With the ability to react in a billionth of a second, AI driven cars will quickly eliminate most of the deaths and economic losses. If that wasn’t enough, the other win is congestion. Congestion is a function of traffic density and the slowest rate of reaction of any driver on the stretch of road in question. When one driver under-reacts and has a minor fender bender or over-reacts and thereby causes a traffic snake, total road bandwidth plummets. This is the cause of most traffic. AI driven cars with CPU’s operating in the gigahertz range allow for far higher density without congestion. This deeply cuts commute times and reduces needed road infrastructure improvements
- Tangentially, the potential benefits of driverless tech to the elderly and the disabled cannot be overstated. The entire delicate dance involving family members intervening to try to persuade an elderly relative to give up driving; the loss of independence suffered by the elderly driver when he/she gives up driving; the complexity and expense of highly-modified vans modified to accommodate wheelchair-bound drivers — all of these situations would benefit from driverless technology.
- There are dozens of additional benefits, as well, that may not seem to be “primary” at first, but will prove just as valuable in the long-run. Such as increased productivity of employees, by being able to work on the road, or take a car on a trip rather than a flight. Another would be the ability for individuals/families to live farther away from the office without worrying about commute/downtime spent in traffic, because they can be getting ready for work in the car, or reading a book, watching a movie, etc.. Lastly, productivity in general can increase, as you could send your car to run errands during the day (pick up dry cleaning, drop kids off at school, etc..), or simply rent out your car during the day to other folks who needed a ride but did not have a car. It may even reduce the number of cars a family needs, as one car could take someone to work, drop them off, and return home to allow other family members to use the car instead of sitting in a parking lot.
That’s a lot of good reasons for moving forward with this technology.
I realize there are still legal and ethical issues that need to be resolved surrounding self-driving cards, but it seems obvious to me that this technology is going to be viable in the near future, and we need to be ready when that time comes.
Here’s one of Waymo’s first videos showing off its capabilities: