Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Driverless Cars: Accelerating into the Future

By Daniel OudolskyPublished February 18, 2015

Every decade, people wonder what will be the next technological leap of the decade, the scientific discovery that will serve as the catalyst that will change the way people live- making our lives easier. In the 1950's, this was television. In the 1990's, this was the advent of the Internet. In the 2000's, this was the conception of the smartphone. Now we're in the 2010's, and wondering- what's next? In fact, the answer is being implemented as we speak- driver-less, automated cars. In this piece, I will explore what this new scientific invention is, it's numerous benefits to humanity and it's subsequent drawbacks- considerations that we must consider as we drive into an exciting, unknowable future of potentialities.
More than a century ago, the world was still dominated by horse-driven carriages. Then, came the advent of the automobile industry- Ford Motors, Chrysler, GM, Mercedes.  There can't be enough books devoted to describe the way automobiles have revolutionized the way humanity lives- on a cultural, economic and political basis. Now more than a hundred years later in 2015, we are on a precipice of the next chapter in automobiles that will once again drastically change the way humans live- driverless, automated cars.

Humans themselves are terrible drivers. We talk on the phone, run red lights, yell at the kids, drink too much alcohol behind the wheel and make mistakes- leading to fender benders, accidents and fatal collisions. In fact,  A new study by the World Health Organization shows that such accidents kill a shocking 1.24m people a year worldwide. The driverless car is set to change the whole entire concept of driving as we know it, leading a possible end to all these problems.  So what exactly does a driverless car entail? Well, it cuts across several definitions. There is a high degree of autonomy on the cruise control, anti-lane drift, automatic braking and self parking functionalities. The headache and countless minutes lost to finding parking spots is now over, the car can use sensors to find park itself- no driver even has to be in the car. You can also continue working while your car picks the groceries for you takes the kids to school or drives that sick grandpa to hospital. Generally, these cars are said to be safer and lower the cost of fuel consumption. They would eliminate accidents often caused by driver's errors, which is the cause of almost all car accidents. Because they are designed to precision, these cars will improve traffic flows and dramatically increase highway capacity, thus diminishing traffic jams and reducing commute times to work. This will save lives and improve on worker productivity, ultimately benefiting the economy.  Most importantly, drivers can engage in other activities like reading, working or even sleeping. So what is the technology utilized that will enable these cars to be driverless? Google's robotic cars possess about $150,000 in equipment including a $70,000 LIDAR system. There is a range finder mounted on top of the car that is a 64- beam laser, which allows the AI system within the automobile to generate a detailed 3D map of the surrounding environment, thereby producing data models that allow it to accurately drive itself. With the advent of driverless cars, the reduction of traffic fatalities will lead to millions of dollars in saved medical costs, lowered insurance premiums and less wasted gasoline. The extra funds will therefore be utilized to further support the economy, leading to increased prosperity.

However, there are some roadblocks that currently exist in the full implementation of driverless cars on public roads. Firstly, the cultural handicap has to be overcome, as many people will be reluctant to give up the driving, and the sense of autonomy and control that it offers them. Driverless cars are also currently in a very legally murky area, as there are few laws that cover driverless cars. They are currently legal for public testing in three states: California, Nevada and Florida. Transportation laws will have to be revised to accommodate this new mode of automated transportation. This is not to mention the problem of affordability of such cars to the general public- currently one such car costs in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Another issue is that for successful implementation of the driverless car, there will have to a complete nationwide overhaul of our traffic systems and infrastructure apparatus- an investment that will cost in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Indeed, every stoplight, inch of road, road junction and signals and signs everywhere will have to be electronically synchronized to the automated cars. Luckily, with the advent of smartphones and mapping technology, such endeavors will be accelerated in implementation. And the fact is, driverless cars will be susceptible to error and electronic faults- and eventually, it will kill somebody causing death by computer. A circuit will fail, a sensor will misread a signal communication malfunction and that one defect will send the car flying across or a highway or plunging into the tree. Despite such drawbacks, the future is still quite expecting, and it's quite possible that within two generations, the concept of driving will completely change- once again revolutionizing the way humans live. Perhaps driverless cars will be poised to be the biggest technological advance of the decade, if not the century- one can only hope. The future of motoring will accelerate into a new view this year, with the UK and France announcing that they will allow driverless cars to legally operate on public roads once they have been tested fully and approved.