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Promises & Pitfalls of Self-Driving Cars

Updated: Apr 19, 2022

On a gorgeous Easter morning, my family was driving to a brunch when we were hit by another car. The injuries I suffered during that horrible accident still affect me today. I often wonder if it could have been avoided had the driver not been human. If the car had been autonomous, programmed with avoidance maneuvers, and equipped with powerful cameras...would my mother and I have ended up in a trauma center that day?

We are already living with autonomous assistance. Some cars will help you park and even hit the brakes for you if it senses danger. My friend's Tesla even comes to her at the parking lot curb. I mean...that's super convenient, especially if your hands are full or you have little kids.

And with a huge portion of accidents due to driver error according to the NHTSA, maybe self-driving vehicles are a good way to go. The promises are plenty. Insurance costs would go down due to fewer crashes. Road rage and drunk driving incidents would lessen. Street racing teens and crazily weaving motorcycles could be more easily avoided with a computer system in charge of navigation. On top of that, cars navigated by systems capable of faster than split-second decisions could go much faster, cutting commute times.

My father lives an hour from me and sometimes needs help getting to appointments. He is uncomfortable driving with strangers and is not able to get himself to the bus. With my kids in school up here, I can't always drive down to take him. If he had an autonomous vehicle, he could make those appointments on his own. Driverless vehicles offer a measure of independence for those who can't drive themselves.

Not only does this technology offer the ability to stay independent, but it may also improve the safety of everyone on the road. For example, some systems currently in progress are even predicting the ability to disable your car remotely if someone other than pre-approved passengers attempt to operate it. If consumers could slow and stop their car via the onboard computer, they could cut down on theft, allow them to prevent drunk driving by a child or partner, and even help a family member who is suffering from a medical emergency to stop safely and wait for help.

Lastly, these vehicles don't get tired. They don't need to stop to eat. They don't drive erratically due to fatigue or distraction. This would take pressure off of truck drivers who often have brutal time schedules that don't allow for human needs like bathroom breaks or sleep. If a vehicle could drive continuously save for refueling if needed, the cost of moving products will go down. Great news for everyone's pocket.

As always, though I love technology, I always offer some things to think about before fully embracing something new. What are the pitfalls we have to watch out for with self-driving vehicles? What if the computer glitches? Is there a manual mode where you can take over and continue the trip or does the car need to go into immediate service?

Though I live in sunny California, there are some places where weather will be a major factor in whether or not you can even use your autonomous vehicle that day. If snow or fog doesn't allow for enough information for the sensors to take in, a safety feature may stop you from using your own car. If there's an emergency, can you override and drive manually? Would that void your warranty or make you liable if there's an accident that causes damage to your vehicle or others? Would your insurance company have access to your car's 'black box' of the accident? Something to think about.

Speaking of glitches, how comfortable should we be with all the control in the hands of a computer? Can it make moral choices without your consent? If your car has to decide between hitting a person or crashing with you in it...what will it choose and do you have a say in that decision? If something goes wrong, do you AND the manufacturer share fault in the accident? According to a recent case, no. Just you would be charged. Four years ago, an entire fleet of vehicles was grounded after an Uber fatally struck a pedestrian in Arizona. The 'backup' driver was not watching the road, relying solely on the car to navigate. Dashcam showed she was watching something on her phone and did not take over to avoid the crash. She was charged with negligent homicide. Uber was found not liable. We get used to tech. We get lazy with it. We trust it too readily. I can see this happening to someone else.

On a side note, not even police really know what to do with autonomous vehicles when they malfunction. Recently a police officer noticed a vehicle driving at night with no lights on. When he attempted to pull it over, he realized it was driverless. It stopped and then took off to find a safer spot, but the officer couldn't communicate with it to tell it why it was pulled over. To remedy this, will authorities have the option to hack your car and make you stop? What if you feel unsafe and are trying to get to a well-lit area first? These questions need to be answered.

Lastly, privacy is something I am very concerned about when considering new tech. According to IPWatchdog, driverless car computers would be a treasure trove of personal information about you and your family. Where you go, how often, who is with you, how long you stay...all of this will be stored by the onboard computer. Who owns this information? Is it the car manufacturer, the navigation computer, you? As I mentioned before, insurance companies may want access to this. Is your personal information stored securely or sold by the manufacturer of your car to third parties? Will the authorities need a warrant?

Technology is often a double-edged sword. We tend to overlook the issues in light of a novel convenience, but be aware before you buy. You may be giving up more than just the driver's seat. On the other hand, the freedom and independence offered by this technology can make so many lives better. What do you think?


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