A family lounges inside a fragile vehicle that’s cutting down a street at 80 miles per hour. Their 8-year-old girl’s mind is inside an interactive virtual world, walking through an Ancient Egyptian village she was directed to as part of her AI Tutor’s individualized education program. Her mother is in an international business meeting, her consciousness and likeness both projected into a room in Thailand to join the physical forms of her coworkers. Her father is inside a virtual sandbox designing a new landscape for his latest VR game.
Suddenly a man runs into the street and obstructs their path. His presence is picked up by the car’s AI system that has been constantly scanning its surroundings out to 450ft—the recommended minimum distance for a car to make a safe and complete stop.
But the man entered from behind a building less than 100 feet away—only 77 feet to be exact. The car cannot safely stop before it would connect with the man. It realizes this within milliseconds, and in the same amount of time warns all other cars nearby, transmitting its specific spatial parameters and those of its surroundings. Each car within 450 feet is contacted with heightened priority, and they return their spatial parameters as well. Within .47 milliseconds, all the data runs through the collision prevention algorithm, locations are calculated, routes are created and distributed, and the following seconds see a sophisticated dance of swerving and stopping cars, all coordinated to ensure every car can find a safe lane that would bring it to a smooth stop. And it all happened far faster than any of the family members could have even processed with their limited senses.
When the squeals and dust went silent and still, each vehicle sat safely, some within mere millimeters of others. The man stood safely on the street. Down the road, all the cars had already received a warning and were being slowed until the obstruction was cleared.
No lives were lost, no cars collided, and the lounging families—who didn’t have to waste mental power steering their cars—were free to carry on with learning, creating, and producing.
This is the promise the self-driving car has made to humanity’s future. Had humans been behind the wheel in this situation, it wouldn’t have mattered how skilled they were: the ability to communicate on a hive-mind level and quickly come up with a safe plan for everyone would have been impossible. The man on the street likely would have been hit and killed while the family’s poor response would have likely caused a pile-up that endangered even more lives.
Obviously such poetic AI doesn’t exist yet, but it’s close, which brings a lot of controversy and fear to the public. The idea of robots driving cars seems to be an immensely terrifying prospect for a great many. And understandably so, as the argument is often a valid one: computers make mistakes, have glitches, and can get viruses, so why couldn’t a computer-driven car do the same?
And it’s true, so far, self driving cars have a record that does show a few hiccups. The California DMV has reported 4 accidents by driverless vehicles, and even Google, arguably the forerunner of the self-driving paradigm-shift, reported in a recent post on Medium:
“Over the 6 years since we started the project, we’ve been involved in 11 minor accidents (light damage, no injuries) during those 1.7 million miles of autonomous and manual driving with our safety drivers behind the wheel, and not once was the self-driving car the cause of the accident.”
But we have to ask ourself: aren’t these few hiccups along the way worth reaching a point where accidents become negligible to the point of being non-existent? In America alone there are over 32,000 deaths per year via motor vehicles. If all cars on the road were integrated and there were no human drivers, then that’s approximately 32,000 lives that could be saved a year (give or take 11 at worst, based on Google’s data).
Now, of course, we should all remain skeptical. Certainly we should be hesitant to assume Google has reported every single accident or that there hasn’t been more mistakes, but then again, we live in a time where any atrocity, injustice, or “entertaining” drama is instantaneously reported via citizen reporters with smartphones. It seems unlikely any major issues could have snuck by without us hearing about them.
Obviously I seem in favor of this technology, and truth be told… I am. But it’s because I truly believe in the benefits this technology will bring. I do, however, realize this is a delicate matter that will greatly alter our day to day lives. And with such a drastic shift in culture I think it’s important to hear all sides of the argument. And who knows, maybe self-driving cars will be the first time we will see our country, and eventually the world, truly divide over the question of “how much can we trust these machines?”
But let me pose to you a different question: how much can we trust any single human with a 2-ton vehicle at 70 mph? We fear the machines because they’re different, but humans are far more capricious and accident-prone than a dedicated AI system. I think that an AI’s ability to maintain 100% attention to a 360 degree view has a better chance of avoiding an auto-accident than most people with smartphones who are texting, doing their makeup, or having fun by pushing reckless speeds and making reckless decisions to show off for their passenger.
Regardless of where you stand, I think the key is to avoid decisions based on the fear of change while also continuing to make calculated advances. If America alone could see 32,000 mothers, fathers, sons, and daughters live out their lives while their families avoid suffering, then I say hand over the steering wheel and let a civilization already stripped of free-time and attention focus their efforts elsewhere during transit. If nothing else, imagine the efficiency benefits we’d gain from cars communicating: think of Los Angeles free of traffic jams because there’s no guess work as the cars connect with traffic signals and each other to transition on and off freeways. More time, less deaths—a future I’d vote for.
And there will be other benefits as well. As we move towards such automation, I suspect we will see the decline of personal vehicles that take up immense amounts of space as they sit unused in parking garages and driveways through most of the day. If we can cut down on the amount of vehicles battling for space (and also causing stress, pollution, and making biking and walking a hazard), I suspect we’ll see quality of life in urban areas immediately take a drastic swing upward.
But what about you? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Let’s start a discussion. Do you want to see self-driving cars become the only vehicles on the road? Will we lose the joy-ride bliss? Will it be safer than human drivers? Is it feasible that we’ll make that full transition in our lifetimes?
Oh, and subscribe and stay on the look out for the follow up on how self-driving cars will affect the job market as taxi and truck drivers are replaced.