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Autonomous Vehicles No Longer Sci-Fi

Updated: Oct 21, 2019

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Self-driven vehicles are no longer “a sci-fi concept” on Hollywood sci-fi films. Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla Inc. and SpaceX has expressed that within a decade, autonomous cars will be as common as elevators.

Industry experts express the technology is going to disrupt or revolutionize the future of transportation as we know it. Automated vehicles are not a new idea. In fact, airlines have been semi-autonomous for years. A pilot will handle takeoff but most of the time autopilot is on and some systems will even allow for “auto-landing” while the pilots monitor the aircraft. It’s the same kind of idea with self-driving cars. Currently technology still needs a human behind the wheel to intervene but over-all, the car does the driving.

Timothy Carone, Associate Professor at Mendoza College of Business University of Notre Dame explains: “Certainly within five years, we should start to see far larger numbers of cars on the roads that are autonomous. When you’re out driving, instead of seeing a person drive, you may see a person sitting there but on their phone with no hands on the wheel.”

So how does it all work? As it navigates, an autonomous car usually uses a technology called LIDAR (Light Detection And Ranging), which emits millions of laser beams per second, giving the car a 360-degree perspective. It also uses radar to detect how far away objects are and their speed, as well as camera optics detecting other visuals such as stop signs and/or red lights.

Then there is the car’s computer, which combines all that data and analyses it in real time. This is called deep learning, the technology that allows the car to make decisions on its own, getting more intelligent as an autonomous car spends time on the road. Just like you have a brain telling your arms and legs to move, the car has technology that tells it to accelerate, brake or steer. Assisted by a global positioning system (GPS), which uses satellite data to tell the car where it is on the map.

What does this mean for the not-so-distant future? There are many predictions but Carone believes car ownership will plummet. Instead, more people will rely on Uber or Lyft type apps that deliver self-driving cars on demand.

Around 90 per cent of road accidents are caused by human error, according to Stanford Law School. Road injury is the eighth-leading cause of death in the world, just behind diabetes, according to the World Health Organization.

Road traffic accidents kill an estimated 1.4 million people a year, according to the WHO. Road accidents kill more men than women and are the biggest killer of 15- to 29-year-olds globally. Presently, insurance companies base premiums on driving history and how much of a risk you are. If you’re a young male who has been in an accident, then you’re considered high-risk and will be charged a higher premium. But what would happen when you take the driver away from the wheel? Would one need insurance at all? Who will be responsible when an accident does occur; the car manufacturer, the driver or both?

The U.K. is considering legislation that would make insurance for self-driving cars mandatory. The idea is that if there is a car malfunction during an accident, then the manufacturer would have to pay for damages unless the car owner made unauthorized changes to the vehicle’s software or failed to install an update. It will also affect law enforcement, experts say. In theory, no speeding tickets will be given out with self-driving cars and we will see a decline in drunk driving and other traffic violations.

On the job side, others believe self-driving technology will shake up the delivery industry. Job losses will be substantial for truck drivers, according to a report by McKinsey and Company. On the other hand, trucking companies could potentially save between US$100 billion to US$500 billion per year by 2025 thanks to driver-less vehicles. This would come from the elimination of truck drivers and their wages.

A lot of debate still surrounds one key factor: are self-driving cars safer than cars driven by humans? Researchers working on autonomous technology have sometimes struggled with how to teach the systems to adjust for unpredictable human behavior or driving.

Let’s imagine self-driving technology could help prevent accidents, that would then suggest that vehicles may come up against moral dilemmas. For example, what if a fully automated vehicle is on the move following all the rules, when suddenly a little boy and his grandfather are jaywalking, and the car doesn’t have time to stop. The car’s computer would then have to decide: should it move to the right and hit the grandfather or move to the left and hit the little boy? Based on the calculation, would the little boy’s life be more valuable because he has a longer life to live?

“They call it the trolley car problems, where if you go one way you kill an old person if you go another way you kill two people, or do you kill yourself.” Carone suggests these kinds of situations are incredibly rare. “I think it makes for good discussion, but it doesn’t happen in normal course.”

Self-driving cars are no longer the future, they are here and will evolve as technology becomes more sophisticated. The disruption has already started and as experts suggest “we can no longer take a wait and see” approach.

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