Sit back and let Google take the wheel

Road rage is becoming a thing of the past thanks to self-driving vehicles

Photo caption: Until recently, self-driving cars were confined to our imaginations. Now they are a reality.

Nigel Sumerlin

In the 1950’s, people imagined a future that held machines which washed dishes, robots that had your coffee ready when your alarm sounded each morning, mobile telephones, cars that drove themselves and virtual reality games.  Fast-forward to 2015, and it appears inevitable that the self-driving car will follow the dishwasher, the cell phone and the Oculus Rift virtual-reality headset, into the realm of reality.

In 2008, Google became the first company to successfully test self-driving cars on public roads, using Priuses retrofitted with sensors and computers. In years since, Google has made substantial progress and now boasts a car that successfully navigates public roads without a steering wheel. Although the Google self-driving car doesn’t exceed 25 m.p.h., it has never been in an accident and has never been pulled over for a traffic violation.

American consumers, though, may not be prepared to give up control of their cars. According to Jeremy Salinger, General Motors research and development manager for their semi-autonomous driving system Super Cruise, “Too much automation, too soon, will frighten the average car buyer.”

“Hands-free driving, cars that park themselves, an unmanned car driven by a search-engine company? We’ve seen that movie. It ends with robots harvesting our bodies for energy,” reads an excerpt from a 2011 Dodge Charger commercial. This statement succeeds at summarizing some of the fear surrounding self-driving cars. People don’t want to give control to a computer.

The auto industry’s solution to the American need for control is to wean us off of it. Consumers are already comfortable with cruise control and the automatic transmission system, and by introducing automation in small steps, automakers hope to slowly take the wheel.

These small steps can be seen in Ford’s self-parking system, a system that enables a car to parallel park without the driver, and a widely used collision avoidance system that automatically brakes to prevent fender-benders. Auto competitors General Motors, Infiniti and Mercedes-Benz are promoting vehicles with semi-automated lane-keeping technology. These new cars will allow drivers to take their hands off the wheel on freeways in certain conditions. As a fail safe, when the car’s GPS senses a sharp curve or if the car leaves the freeway, the system will alert the driver to take manual control.

Fear isn’t the only obstacle keeping self-driving cars off the road. Although innovation has made massive improvements in the last ten years, the technology isn’t 100 percent there. Self-driving cars simply can’t handle some situations, such as snow that conceals road markings, unexpected accidents or road work and police officers manually directing traffic.

Police officers and local governments have much to lose if self-driving cars were to take over the roads. Traffic tickets account for 6.2 billion dollars in police revenue every year. After logging more than 700,000 miles on California roads, Google’s self driving car has never been pulled over. If autonomous vehicles were to take over the roads, local government budgets might take a large hit.

We live in a rapidly changing world and it seems that no day goes by in which our way of living isn’t threatened by one new piece of technology or another. Science fiction is rife with stories about robots threatening humanity, but as we lose more control to the efficiency of computers, these stories move from the realm of fiction to reality.

The track record shows that compared to humans, computers commit far fewer errors. Self-driving cars do not drink and drive, fall asleep at the wheel or experience road rage. Forty percent of accidents are due to alcohol, distraction or fatigue. Many more result from inexperience, speeding, aggressive driving and overcompensation. An Eno Centre for Transportation study suggests that if a mere 10 percent of cars on the road were self-driving, 1,000 fewer lives would be lost in car accidents every year.

Despite taking one step back for every two steps forward, progress has shown itself to be inexorable. In the decades to come, human drivers may become a minority, and fatal car accidents may become rare.

Nigel is a freshman pursuing a double major in history and psychology.