A Self-Driving Car "Revolution"?

The potential benefits and issues of self-driving cars have been addressed by many magazines, from The Economist and The Atlantic, to Business Insider and Forbes; and more recently acknowledged by highway safety authorities in the USA. A hot-button issue as of late,  using autonomous vehicular control to reduce traffic fatalities and injuries is an ideal that should be encouraged, but it can’t be achieved without addressing a variety of concerns. Threats of generational trends, liability, security, and class (and cost) issues could doom a future of fully autonomous vehicle domination before it begins.

Naturally, to evaluate the future of this technology, we must first understand how self-driving cars work. Two notable elements of operating a self-driving car are the abundance of sensors involved and the integral role of programming the “right” way to drive. As quoted in the article:

Sometimes, however, the car has to be more “aggressive.” When going through a four-way intersection, for example, it yields to other vehicles based on road rules; but if other cars don’t reciprocate, it advances a bit to show to the other drivers its intention. Without programming that kind of behavior, Urmson said, it would be impossible for the robot car to drive in the real world.

Programming a car to react to and replicate such idiosyncracies as human driver communication, likely would only need to exist until a tipping point was reached, at which point autonomous cars could then interact with each other directly. If and when such a point is reached, these cars would no longer have a need for these programmatic quirks.

However, there are generational trends exist that could have an impact on the viability of self-driving car demand in the future. As established by The Economist, drivers licenses are on the wane for younger Americans, and carsharing is becoming more popular. Companies like Zipcar and Lyft are contributing to the trend toward a sharing economy. However, for older drivers, driving remains important and relevant to their autonomy as they age. Per the Economist article, “Baby-boomers pretty much all learned to drive, and now that they are beginning to retire they expect to continue motoring. The development of assisted driving, followed one day by fully automated cars, will allow them to stay mobile for much longer.” So while younger Americans tend more toward alternate methods of transportation, the increasing demand of older Americans for vehicles that require less control or active decision making, could equalize the demand for driverless cars in the market.

A takeover by autonomous vehicles could be somewhat like the convenience wave that struck our culture of food–the more elements of a drudgerous task become automated, the more we desire full and complete automation to remove ourselves from the burden of the task. Continually driving us (pun intended) away from understanding the technology that we work with and interact with on a daily basis (these trends exist with cars now, spitting out codes only decipherable by expensive machines at the auto mechanics) driverless cars could be part of a natural evolution in this economy. However, the food industry is seeing movements counteract this slow automation, and the automotive industry could too as automation becomes more standard. DIY and slow food advocates have turned to canning, and growing their own food, led by advocates like Michael Pollan. A revolution of driverless cars could see a large backlash, or at least a countercurrent, of drivers that prefer to continue driving their own vehicles. Indeed, these drivers exist now: turning off the electronic stability controls in order to drift or installing nitrous oxide and other speed hacks to challenge the power of their engines.

In addition to these potential countercurrents, taxi and truck driver unions may hold more weight when fighting attempts by this technology to take over their jobs. Though the threat of robots taking over jobs has been much hyped in the media, these groups have an extra advantage in that many of them are unionized. Efforts to introduce automated vehicles to replace them thus face bureaucratic and organized resistance, rather than a sometimes weaker, especially when facing neoliberal economic efficiency, grassroots opposition.

An additional issue that plagues the imagination of an autonomous vehicle future is that of liability. The Verge does an excellent job of establishing the potential legal and liability issues involved with a future of automated cars (or more importantly, during a transitory period before automated cars become “the norm”). Called to task are the insurance obligations of companies, drivers, and programmers, in addition to the effect that these issues have on the potential viability of the technology in the mainstream–and it doesn’t look good:

Steve Shladover is the program manager of mobility at California’s PATH program, where they’ve been trying to make convoy technology happen for 25 years, lured by the prospect of fitting three times as many cars on the freeway. They were showing off a working version as early as 1997 (powered by a single Pentium processor), before falling into the same gap between prototype and final product. “It’s a solvable problem once people can see the benefits,” he told The Verge, “but I think a lot of the current activity is wildly optimistic in terms of what can be achieved.”

When I asked him when we’d see a self-driving car, Shladover told me what he says at the many auto conferences he’s been to: “I don’t expect to see the fully-automated, autonomous vehicle out on the road in the lifetime of anyone in this room.”

The legal issues are just one lens through which to view this future. The automotive industry is almost overwhelmingly optimistic, declaring that “By 2020, cars capable of taking over most of the work of high speed driving could debut, and by 2025, fully autonomous vehicles might hit the streets in meaningful numbers.” However, legal hurdles are yet to be overcome, but the recent attention of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to the existence of self-driving cars likely bodes well for the industry.

As blogger James Joyner points out, with the goal of increased safety, there will be great incentive from insurance companies and the government to make an autonomous car mandatory to own. With that comes the clear concern of how that will impact those who don’t wish to buy new cars, or those that can’t afford to buy new cars–will we be instituting subsidies and tax breaks for autonomous vehicles like we did for highly fuel-efficient vehicles? Perhaps even a “cash for clunkers” type program could emerge, enticing people to trade in older cars for new autonomous vehicles. How these cars will be presented in legislation and regulations in this manner may be predicted by examining how hybrid cars have fared–while receiving tax breaks, purchase incentives, and great popularity, they have not been mandated in any fashion by the government or insurance companies.

Adding to the issue of cost, as mentioned earlier, a self-driving car has an abundance of sensors that it uses to, well, drive. Monitoring the road, the traffic signals, distance to other cars and non-moving objects, recognizing persons and animals; sensors enable the vehicle to be autonomous. Offered in the previously cited article is a non-exhaustive list: “four radars, mounted on the front and rear bumpers, that allow the car to “see” far enough to be able to deal with fast traffic on freeways; a camera, positioned near the rear-view mirror, that detects traffic lights; and a GPS, inertial measurement unit, and wheel encoder, that determine the vehicle’s location and keep track of its movements.” All integral to the functioning of the vehicle. And, to anyone who’s ever had to replace a tire pressure or O2 sensor on their car, all likely to be very, very pricey. For someone who is low income, or an elderly person that perhaps has a vehicle of this sort provided for them by their family to ease transportation burdens, these sensors could be very difficult to replace budget-wise, and thus decrease the autonomous capabilities of the car–either causing it to revert back to a driver-driven car, or become a treacherously operating autonomous vehicle.

In addition to involving overpriced sensors and further customer-alienating technology, there is the risk of isolating the rural poor. A key element of the function of driverless cars is that “every inch of road, every junction, road sign and signal everywhere will have to be mapped in perfect detail. But this is being done anyway to support navigation systems for both cars and smartphones.” A major concern of mine is what could happen if it isn’t economically beneficial to record the streets in an area? The people that live in areas continually overlooked by Google Maps surveys and that aren’t likely to own a car in each household (or at the least, not a new car) could be more numerous than we anticipate. Already disenfranchised communities could be further isolated by a consumer trend dominated by accessibility to technology and the money for a new car. Alternatively, a Walmart-esque approach could be taken; targeting the low-density areas first as a means of testing the safety of the vehicles in a sparsely populated area, as well as enabling access of this technology to easily disenfranchised communities. However, other issues related to cost would still remain for these communities.

Aside from cost and budget issues associated with ownership, security risks also present themselves with this technology. Working in a technology support position, I interact with users of technology on a near-constant basis. Something that truly concerns me about relying on a software program to propel machinery of great weight around streets at high speeds is that all too often, people neglect to update their software or their machinery. Pushing out automatic updates would be possible, but also lends the risk of being hijacked by hackers. However, if firewalls and ports were properly established, these risks could be easily mitigated. These risks should be further addressed by the companies as the technology develops, and additionally, considerable customer service staff and network technicians should be devoted to ensure the greatest security to the owners of these vehicles. Luckily, there is a significant monetary incentive to provide great service in this area, in contrast to monopolized electric companies and Smart Meter technology, or the sometime shoddy security offered by providers of free services online.

In addition to the security risks, some privacy risks are involved as well. Having a car controlled solely by sensors generates a massive amount of data. That data will need to be controlled, regulated, and secured–and also analyzed. The transmission of the data will need to be securely encrypted, and anonymized once in the hands of companies in order to ensure privacy of consumers. If not anonymized, perhaps a system as strict as that regulating patient health data should be instituted–though more likely a system much like that of cell phone data would exist. Accessible by the companies, but denied access to the users themselves, and available to governmental agencies upon mere request.

Autonomous vehicles bring monetary, privacy, security, liability, and legal issues to the table. These will all need to be sufficiently addressed before they can become mainstream on the market.