You’ll often find the technology sections of newspapers these days full of stories on autonomous cars. Google, the well-known search giant, has trialled such vehicles on the streets of San Francisco for years. Swedish car maker Volvo is running some tests in Gothenburg.
Most recently, the UK kick-started a series of government research projects into driverless cars. It’s no secret that many governments and companies want to develop the technology.
The idea of sitting inside your car and reading a book or having a nap while it drives for you is incredible. It seems like that dream will become reality in as little as five years time, believe it or not. Innovators of the technology will tell you that it’ll make our roads safer.
But it seems that not all is well in the world of driverless cars. The motor industry is keen to point out all the amazing benefits of autonomous vehicles. But they are reluctant to tell you about the potential pitfalls.
I don’t wish to sound like a prophet of doom. It’s just that the industry doesn’t seem to have the answers to the questions we are all asking. Here are some reasons why, for now, driverless car technology is not a good idea.
It’s likely they will cost a lot of money
One of the main bugbears about autonomous vehicles is the cost of the technology. Google admits that the systems retrofitted to its fleet of cars cost as much as the price of a brand new LS Saloon from Inchcape Lexus.
There doesn’t seem to be any signs that the cost of driverless technology will be within reach of most people. I don’t know about you, but I think it would be cheaper to hire a chauffeur and get driven around by someone else!
It’s likely the costs will be high once autonomous vehicles get given the green light for public use. Take electric cars, for instance. On average they cost at least 25% more to buy than their petrol and diesel-powered cousins!
In theory, the prospect of computer-controlled cars might sound brilliant to some. But, in reality, economics will dictate how mainstream they become.
People don’t always trust computers to make the right decisions
A computer will only ever be as good as the people that program them. The ugly truth is that they are likely to make mistakes – just like humans. One of the biggest questions on autonomous vehicles is how safe they will be on the road.
After all; you control no aspect of your car. We’ve already got some semi-autonomous cars on the road today. For example, there are some models that can park themselves. But you have to control the clutch, brake and accelerator pedals. The car handles the steering.
In a driverless car, you will have to hand complete control over to the vehicle you are travelling in. And it’s likely you might not have the option to override any decisions the car makes. To their credit, driverless cars scan and process data on their surroundings thousands of times per second.
But you will always question whether it can make the right decisions for any given scenario. It’s that reason why people won’t completely trust the choices made by a computer that drives your car for you.
You might be thinking that there are already examples of autonomous vehicles used in public with no problem. However, they are usually light transit systems like metro trains. Cars have to deal with all kinds of terrain and driving situations.
How would an autonomous car deal with driving over rough terrain after leaving a paved road? And what about rural areas where there may be few landmarks in sight? One could argue that GPS data could get used. As you can see, there are many unanswered questions about how such cars would operate in certain circumstances.
How would autonomous cars co-exist with other vehicles?
For driverless cars to be a success, they would need to “think” independently of other vehicles on the road. How would they work with cars, trucks and other vehicles that don’t have the technology?
There’s been word on future vehicles using car-to-car communications. But what if you drive a vehicle built before such technology was commonplace? Driverless cars wouldn’t be able to “talk” to yours!
The motor industry first needs to improve consumer confidence. They would need to explain to ordinary motorists like you and I how the technology would work with other vehicles.
What would happen in an accident?
As rare as the scenario is, what would happen if someone deliberately crashed into your driverless car? Would it be quick enough to react and get out of harm’s way? The sad truth is people with road rage often force other motorists off the road in anger.
One scenario that needs clarification is what would happen if two driverless cars collided with each other? The point of the technology is to prevent such situations from occurring. But it’s still a possibility!
To an insurance company, it might be difficult to pin the blame on a particular autonomous vehicle. The result is the blame will get split 50/50 between both parties. And both motorists will have to face increased insurance costs for the next few years.
What about system failures?
Another possibility is that the system behind the technology could fail. It’s not uncommon for vehicles to suffer from mechanical and electrical problems. Even a well cared-for car would still have some gremlins lurking somewhere!
Would autonomous cars have a backup system in place? The car would have to stop somewhere and shut itself down. Or it would have to give control to the driver. For the latter to happen, a conventional steering wheel and foot controls would need to get installed in the vehicle.
The motor industry needs to clarify the points raised in this blog post. At least, before drivers can feel happier about letting a computer drive them around. Until then, there will be little take-up of such innovative technology.