Google’s driverless cars have taken to our roadways, each day inching closer to a reality for all Americans. But how smooth will the transition be? Self-driving cars have been polarizing, and tech leaders may need to address public fears before they push much further.
Like it or not, autonomous driving will be the new status quo — within the next ten years, nearly every auto manufacturer will roll out impressive lines of self-driving cars to compete in an inevitable public market. We have plenty of reasons to be optimistic about that market, as driverless vehicles could dramatically improve car safety, fuel consumption, and ride-sharing.
Google has been a pioneer in this field — the Google Self-Driving Car (SDC) was first designed to automate the way we map the country, and it’s soon going to automate the way we travel in it. Now, cars like the SDC well beyond the prototype stage are logging miles in U.S. cities. They’re actually open to user testing, and randomly selected consumers are already experiencing computer-piloted driving for themselves. But as impressive as this nearly market-ready tech is, it hasn’t convinced everyone — in fact, about half of the public isn’t sold.
But in spite of how popular digital tech and artificial intelligence has become, people still tend to be wary of any new automated technology that hits the market. It seems that driverless cars are no exception.
Despite the relatively small number of Google car-related accidents (16, all purportedly due to human failure), there remains a persistent skepticism about how safe they are. And given the number of high-profile digital hacks against financial giants and institutional retailers, it makes sense that digital cars would also have bugs and vulnerabilities (and if you’re wondering, yes, you can hack a car).
Consumers also have their practical best interests at heart, worried that automated vehicles would eliminate jobs. But what people often don’t consider is that this kind of tech can actually create jobs — an automated industry would open novel job opportunities and create efficiencies that would have been considered impossible just a few years ago.
Of course, along with their potential, Google cars also have their practical limitations. For one, they’re robots, which means that they follow the rules of the road with incredible zeal. That would be fine if there were only other robots on the road, but this dedication to the rules leaves driverless cars vulnerable to the driving decisions of real people.
According to the Wall Street Journal, driverless cars have a hard time handling the often unpredictable movements of human drivers, and vice versa. In particular, the four-way stop is bit of an impasse for the self-driver: where normal drivers slowly creep forward, anticipating their turn, the Google car politely waits until all drivers have stopped to proceed, which can take up to an hour.
But more broadly, these cars don’t yet have complete domain over the roadway. Their routes have to be carefully mapped beforehand, in person, and they struggle to detect sudden changes in weather that can impact their performance. Being robots, they also don’t receive the non-verbal cues that human drivers regularly exchange: a nod for a go ahead, a policeman signalling you to stop, or the occasional rude gesture.
In all reality, driverless cars will take some time to fully integrate into our digital society. There are some costs that will slow their public production for at least a decade, including a strongly polarized public, the cost of overcoming their logistical limitations, and the need for government regulations that deal with some fairly tricky ethical issues. Most likely, self-driving technology will be introduced as a compromise — an sort of advanced cruise control that is able to take control, change lanes, and handle long distances, but which will still need a present (and sentient) driver.
As leaders in the transformative digital space, we find these developments to be particularly exciting. Regardless of the eventual shape driverless cars will take, it’s essential that companies envision the humongous changes to the way we live and work that lie just beyond the horizon.