In the wake of Google’s recent investment in the autonomous car company Oxa, Mark Trimbee – the CEO of personalised number plate provider Regtransfers – explores the burgeoning fascination with self-driving cars, specifically addressing concerns over safety and whether self-driving vehicles genuinely hold the key to our future transportation.
The concept of self-driving cars has long captivated both communities of driving and tech enthusiasts. Yet, what was once a staple of science fiction novels is rapidly transforming into a tangible reality – and gaining interest among the wider general public. Without a doubt, the integration of autonomous vehicles into our daily lives is drawing near. As with the concurrent “dawn” of artificial intelligence platforms like ChatGPT, it is an exciting thing to witness, but not without its share of due apprehension.
Amidst the media frenzy and glossy advertisements promoting the automated technologies behind self-driven vehicles, it is imperative to address the valid safety concerns that accompany the adoption of fully autonomous cars.
The notion of cars capable of operating without human intervention is undeniably captivating. Nonetheless, not too long ago, headlines appeared reporting some 400 self-driving cars involved in accidents.
In more recent news, a pedestrian in San Francisco found themselves trapped beneath an autonomous vehicle. While subsequent investigations into this incident revealed that the autonomous system was not the primary cause of the mishap, stories like these still cast doubt on the safety of self-driving vehicles as a mode of transport.
Evaluating the Safety of Autonomous Automobiles
Fully autonomous vehicles are still a rare sight on most roads, but they are gradually making their presence known. Moreover, modern vehicles are progressively incorporating various levels of automation into their functions, potentially transforming every seat into a passenger seat.
Autonomous cars, as well as artificial intelligence in general, represent uncharted territory, particularly in terms of public safety and security. When we examine the role of AI in driving, it raises scenarios related to road safety and prompts questions about how human drivers might react to accidents compared to AI’s behaviour. Most importantly, we need to understand how an AI will respond to certain situations – from those where there is a clear “right” course of action to the more tricky conundrums in which the correct choice is framed by both personal opinion and overall circumstance.
Of course, road accidents are in no way exclusive to autonomous vehicles or AI; humans have been crashing into one another (with or without the aid of a car) for a very long time. That said, there is a particular kind of unease felt when the human element is removed from the equation of driving.
Statistics reveal that 2022 brought the UK 1,695 fatalities and 136,022 casualties resulting from road traffic accidents. Human drivers are susceptible to accidents, and there’s no denying that the potential introduction of self-driving cars that surpass human safety standards could lead to safer roads and fewer casualties—an appealing prospect.
However, relinquishing control from human drivers, who possess the capacity to think, react, and exercise judgement, understandably raises concerns, especially in these early stages of AI development.
Navigating the Challenges
The proliferation of smart products, applications, and wearable technology has already presented new cybersecurity challenges. The risk of hacking becomes more pronounced with fully autonomous vehicles, which heavily rely on computer systems, especially if a significant number of these vehicles share a common network.
Additionally, cost is a factor to consider. In the UK, a self-driving car comes with a price tag of approximately £50,000, placing them out of reach for many individuals. Nevertheless, as technology progresses, costs are anticipated to become more affordable for the average car owner.
We must not disregard the moral dilemmas that may arise in complex traffic scenarios, where no straightforward solution ensures the 100% safety of road users or pedestrians. Who determines the logic behind a vehicle’s choices when faced with dilemmas that could potentially harm either pedestrians or passengers? The manufacturers of self-driving car intelligence and their decision-making algorithms might find themselves in the challenging position of “playing God”—a significant concern for the general public who will be using these vehicles and navigating the roads as pedestrians.
And, of course, technology is not infallible. The potential for machine errors remains ever-present, and in a fully automated world, these errors can jeopardise the safety of both passengers and pedestrians. Inappropriate system activations or deactivations, battery fires, breakdowns, or loss of control leading to accidents are all potential concerns.
Exploring the Benefits
At this point, it’s worth stating that addressing these concerns is not meant as a tactic of fear mongering. These concerns are legitimate and grounded in the current landscape. Thankfully, while concerns exist, so too do several clear advantages ruling in favour of self-driving cars and their eventual widespread adoption:
Enhanced Safety: Most car accidents stem from human errors, a perennial issue. Self-driving technology relies on meticulously designed algorithms and advanced systems to eliminate human error, potentially reducing accidents resulting from distractions, impairment, or lapses in judgement.
Optimised Traffic Efficiency: Equipped with efficient communication capabilities, self-driving cars promise smoother traffic flow and safer journeys. These vehicles can select the most efficient routes for each trip, improving overall travel efficiency.
Environmental Benefits: Self-driving cars are likely to be electric, reducing the carbon footprint compared to traditional internal-combustion engines. This transition contributes to reduced emissions and a more environmentally sustainable mode of travel.
Inclusivity: Self-driving cars offer a safer mode of transportation for individuals with disabilities, the elderly, or those who may have hesitated to drive due to anxiety. This is particularly valuable in areas with limited public transportation options.
As we witness the growing prevalence of AI, exemplified by technologies like ChatGPT, the potential for refinement becomes increasingly evident. The automated future on the horizon holds promise and excitement, particularly in the realm of self-driving vehicles. While the prospect of heightened safety, sustainability, and efficiency is enticing, we may still be some distance away from realising this vision as a tangible reality.