The future of driverless cars

August 17, 2016 16:09

Revolutionary or disaster waiting to happen?

Driverless cars have caused a bit of an upheaval over the past couple of years, inciting polarised reactions and opinions across the board. On the one hand there are those that herald it as the single biggest paradigm shift in modern automobiles, pioneering the future of transportation. On the flip-side there are groups of people who are more skeptical about the practicality of driverless vehicles, highlighting the potential for abuse claiming it will open up entirely new avenues for criminal activity and terrorism - amongst other things.

Both the for and against camp make compelling points to bolster their case. Speaking at an energy conference in Norway, tech mogul Elon Musk of Tesla motors commented “The probability of having an accident is 50 per cent lower if you have Autopilot on, even with our first version, it's almost twice as good as a person”. If this is true the implications are incredible. If something so new is already superior to the average driver, how much better will it be after a few more years of technological innovation? Only time will tell.

slow down 30 speed limit road sign

Are humans the problem?

As a counter argument to the aforementioned point, there are those that claim that whilst they may in theory be safer, that which makes them so safe is in fact it’s biggest downfall when factoring in other human drivers. Driverless vehicles are programmed to follow the stringent letter of the law, which means that they are never driving over the legal speed limit - something that can’t be said for their human inhabited counterparts. These contrasting behavioral patterns have caused a number of accidents, however they are reported to be all “Minor scrape ups” and that the human driver is always at fault, most caused by them hitting the back of the slower moving driver-less cars.

Whilst I believe framing a major benefit as a disadvantage on the basis of human error is extremely nonsensical, there are some very real dangers which could be abused by groups or individuals with malicious intentions. To give an example, Google, Lexus, Mercedes and Audi driverless cars use “Lidar” a laser ranging system mounted to the roof of the vehicle which detects objects and maps a 3D image of the world around it. Now this is all well and good, however a tool similar to a laser pointer can be used to confuse the Lidar system and make it interpret the laser as an obstacle, forcing it to take evasive action in order to avoid a collision with the perceived object. This raises some worrying points as if a vehicle can be sabotaged with a simple laser pointer, there are clearly issues that need to be addressed before this can be rolled out to the wider population.

Positive early statistics

It is worth noting that near enough everything you can think of has the potential to be dangerous if misused. Whilst it is a valid point worth taking into consideration, it is not an issue exclusive to driver-less cars and should not be painted as such. A study by the Eno Centre for Transportation actually found that if 90% of the cars on American roads were autonomous the number of accidents would fall from 6 million per year to 1.3 million and the number of deaths to 11,300 from 33,000.

The early stages are looking extremely positive, even in its infancy the statistics are showing incredible promise. It's important to note that no great and revolutionary change is met without opposition, and it’s through this adversity that automated vehicles will become a more refined and complete model over the next few years, and with the calibre of competition involved it will be interesting to see who emerges as the dominant player in this huge prospective industry.