December 29, 2016

The Future of Driverless Cars

The question is not if driverless cars can happen, but when and under what circumstances.

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What’s it about?

Sue Halpern looks at driverless cars: the technology, debate, risks, and the road ahead.

The world’s first self-driving taxi service entered into operation in Singapore this August (2016). A few weeks later, Uber, the app based taxi service, launched a fleet of autonomous vehicles in Pittsburgh. The vehicles keep a human in the seat in case of emergencies, but the cars otherwise drive themselves.

Google, Baidu, Lyft, GM, Ford, Delphi and Daimler and several other companies are competing to do away with drivers once and for all.

The Future of Driverless Cars:

  1. The timelines for implementation of autonomous vehicles vary from report to report. Morgan Stanley’s bullish view is “100% autonomous penetration” by 2026. The university of Michigan says 2030, IHS automotive 2050.
  2. Google’s recent autonomous car division project manager, Chris Umson, states the technology will implemented incrementally: Starting in safe places, or places willing to experiment, or with early adopters.
  3. Many new cars already have machines undertake certain tasks: automatic windscreen wipers, brakes, blind-spot detectors, cruise control, self-parking, and for Tesla – autopilot mode. Machines take in information from the environment and then implement an outcome based on predetermined algorithms.
  4. Although self-driving cars have the potential to be safer than the human-driven sort, there is likely to be a point during their early adoption where they are less safe. This danger could be heightened where there is split responsibility between human and machine. Already there have been three deaths in Tesla cars while on auto-pilot.
  5. As the technology becomes widely adopted the point of increased danger should recede. More cars will be able to talk to each other, artificial intelligence will learn and improve, technology will improve. Data from GPS, radar, laser radar (lidar), sonar, inertial measurement utility and ordinary cameras will become better integrated and the decision making algorithms more accurate.
  6. The biggest hurdles may be ethical and legal. Who will need the insurance, the driver or the software manufacturer? Who will be responsible in the event of an accident? How will we distinguish blame in semi-autonomous, mixed cars? How will the algorithms be written? Will we favour children over adults? Will we kill two adults to save one child?


Utopia looks something like this: fleets of autonomous vehicles—call them taxi bots—owned by companies like Uber and Google, able to be deployed on demand, that will eliminate the need for private car ownership. (Currently, most privately owned cars sit idle for most of the day, taking up space and depreciating in value.)

Fewer privately owned vehicles will result in fewer cars on the road overall. With fewer cars will come fewer traffic jams and fewer accidents. Fewer accidents will enable cars to be made from lighter materials, saving on fuel. They will be smaller, too, since cars will no longer need to be armored against one another.

With less private car ownership, individuals will be freed of car payments, fuel and maintenance costs, and insurance premiums. Riders will have more disposable income and less debt. The built environment will improve as well, as road signs are eliminated—smart cars always know where they are and where they are going—and parking spaces, having become obsolete, are converted into green spaces.

Morgan Stanley analysts estimate that switching to full vehicle autonomy will save the United States economy alone $1.3 trillion a year.

A big change

The major car makers understand their days of dominance are over, all are making alliances with tech companies.

The companies with the best software will win.

Driverless cars will become more noticeable on the streets, smaller, made of different material and designs and without steering wheels and brake peddles.

Capital will be the winner. Those with the robots will prosper, while many middle class jobs are likely to go.

Mass transit systems, too, may disappear, made cost ineffective by the ubiquitous fleet of self-driving cars.

Take Away Points and Context

  • The pace of technological innovation is rapid, particularly in the case of artificial intelligence and the area of ‘deep learning’, the ability of machines to process and learn from information.
  • The question is not if driverless cars can happen, but when and under what circumstances.
  • There were 35,000 traffic fatalities in the US alone last year, and over six million accidents, almost all due to human error. Self-driving cars have the potential to eliminate road deaths, making the time where we tolerated such casualties an anachronism of the past.
  • There are dangers in the effect on jobs. Taxi driving has traditionally been a route into the middle class for the less-educated or for immigrants.
  • There are dangers that privacy will be eroded, with big tech companies, such as Google, collecting data on where passengers go, what they do in the cars, and what advertisements to best show them during their ride.


Full Article:


Our Driverless Future

Driverless: Intelligent Cars and the Road Ahead

by Hod Lipson and Melba Kurman
MIT Press, 312 pp., $29.95


The Future of Driverless Cars. Comments welcome below.

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