The realm of self-driving cars is starting to sound very much like Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano, a novel about machines taking over tasks for regular people. Listen to a 2015 Ted Talk by Chris Urmson, co-founder and CEO of Aurora Innovation (leader in the self-driving industry), and it will sound at once inspirational, yet also disparaging to the current individual driver. In his talk, Urmson notes human error and gives startling facts about fatalities on the road and the reasons for those accidents. He describes driver assistance programs, such as automatic braking and alarms for blind spots, as becoming rapidly obsolete, going so far as to confirm driver assistance is a dead-end industry. His talk is impressive, and the technology he unveils and explains, awe-inspiring. There is no doubt that self-driving cars will revolutionize transportation as we know it.
However, autonomous vehicles have many roadblocks to navigate before becoming a common consumer product. Below is an overview of six roadblocks that will be expanded on in further posts.
Infrastructure: Much like a consumer needs the Nest in order to control the temperature of their home from their phone, self-driving cars will need similar “smart infrastructure” to run more efficiently. Before even that can be considered or built, roads will first need to be repaved, repainted, and cleaned up.
Weather: Many autonomous vehicle prototypes have navigated through light rain and nighttime with success, but they have yet to be tested in foggy conditions or on snow and ice covered roads which may block their sensors and ability to locate road lines.
Money: As with all things, money will be an issue. If infrastructure needs to be rebuilt, who will foot the bill?
Ethics: If perfected to Level 5 autonomy, cars will no longer have brakes or steering wheels. Will an autonomous car be programmed to or even able compute actions to follow in difficult ethical situations?
Legal: Regulations across the country and world will need to change. Tort law will need to take a hard look at fault, and who is guilty of it.
Implementation: When everything is settled and self-driving cars are loosed on the public, how will they assimilate into society? How will individual drivers react to the driverless cars around them, and how will the self-driving cars interact and anticipate the human drivers?
Self-driving cars will drastically protect human life on our roads, as 94% of accidents are caused by human error. These cars will bring equity to those who cannot drive due to disabilities, and may potentially aid in curbing carbon emissions (or may increase them). The technology could put millions of people out of jobs, from Uber drivers to school bus drivers, and remove a coming of age requirement for future generations. It may give years back to people who would otherwise be commuting, and would see the end to distracted and drunk driving.
While these posts will be purely informational in nature, it is good to remember that with new technology comes different questions of ethics, morality, and progress. “That would be the third revolution, I guess—machines that devaluate human thinking.” (Player Piano, Kurt Vonnegut)
A graduate of George Washington University of National Law Center, Thomas J. Curcio is an author, speaker, and personal injury attorney. He has been named one of DC Best Lawyers Personal Injury Litigation and co-author of “Evidence for the Trial Lawyer." His experience includes the successful representation of injured passengers of the 2009 WMATA (DC Metro) Fort Trotten train crash.