Racing into the future: Self-driving cars


Lizzie Kristal

Self-driving cars have many facets that must be considered for future use in society.

A car with a camera posted on the top signals, slows down, and flawlessly pulls up to the curb to pick up the next rider. Inside, there’s no one in the driver’s seat, and the wheel is turning by itself. These cars are the future. Self-driving cars are already being driven in a few states, and with rapidly growing companies like Google and Tesla, the cars will soon be a reality.

According to Alan Amici, a vice president of automotive engineering at TE Connectivity, a global technology leader, self-driving cars are a combination of three technologies: sensors, connectivity, and software/control algorithms. Sensor technology is in many semi-autonomous vehicles today. This technology is behind blind-spot monitoring, lane-keep assistance, and forward collision warning. Connectivity is how cars have access to information that helps safety on the road, such as weather, maps, road conditions, adjacent vehicles, and road construction. Lastly, software/control algorithms are the most complicated piece of self-driving technology. This captures the data from sensors and connectivity to make the best possible decisions represented in speed, braking, steering, and more. Finding the balance between these softwares is what makes a self-driving car function.


The case for self-driving cars

The biggest advantage of self-driving cars is a huge reduction in accidents. A study conducted by NHTSA shows that 94% of accidents are caused by human error, and with a computer controlling the wheel, those accidents will be eliminated. Distracted and drunk driving also contributes to fatal accidents. These factors won’t be an issue anymore because the car will always be working at its best performance, no matter the time of night.

If accidents are decreased, then that will also be economically beneficial. The Environmental Protection Agency estimated a human life to be worth about $9.1 million. A report by America’s Workforce and the Self-Driving Future showed that if self-driving cars are fully adopted into society, $800 billion will be saved annually from accident recovery, fuel efficiency, and better access to transportation.

If self-driving cars are fully adopted into society, $800 billion will be saved annually from accident recovery, fuel efficiency, and better access to transportation..

The environment could benefit from self-driving cars too. If there were a large portion of self-driving cars, vehicle platooning would occur. This is when many cars have the ability to drive within close proximity at high speeds without accidents. Platooning would majorly remove traffic, commute time, and fuel efficiency. Thus, there would be less time for fuel emissions. In this way, self-driving cars would decrease greenhouse gases in the environment.

Many more benefits would come from fully-autonomous vehicles. People who had disabilities that limited their driving abilities could have easier access to transportation, along with the elderly. Police officers would spend less time distributing tickets and more time attending more pressing issues. People, in general, could spend commuting time doing work, reading, and more. The good things that come out of self-driving cars would make a huge shift for society.

Zooming in on one company who is among the furthest of self-driving cars in Google’s self-driving car branch, Waymo. In 2015, Steven Mahan, who’s legally blind, took the world’s first fully self-driving car to the streets. In 2018, a project called Waymo One launched in Phoenix, Arizona. This is similar to Uber, but for self-driving cars instead. Their technology is based on light beams that are being shot at more than a million times per second. These beams paint a picture for the car on its surroundings, the trajectory of its surroundings, the speed, and more. It can see up to three football fields away, and it sees equally in the night and day time. This is a great example of how self-driving cars could easily change the future and daily ease of people around the world.


The case against self-driving cars

While the idea of relinquishing control and leaning back to relax during a car ride is appealing, the reality of self-driving cars is that they are not yet ready for the market.

Eager companies and consumers are racing to that finish line despite hazards that come with the cars.

In only March of 2018, a pedestrian was killed by a self-driving car in Arizona. The car was even manned by an emergency backup driver. Uber, the company behind this car, then suspended self-driving car testing.

The reality of self-driving cars is that they are not yet ready for the market.

The technology behind self-driving cars is not yet developed enough for the cars to hit the road. The complexity of the maps guiding the car takes longer to create than regular maps as they need to capture much more detail.

One problem many manufacturers have run into is the reaction time of humans in self-driving cars. In certain situations, the cars relinquish control to its passenger. When this happens, distracted passengers must jump into action and take over control of the car. However, a challenge showing up is that the passenger is distracted and does not act quickly to resume control of the car. The assumption of self-driving cars is that they are fully autonomous, but in actuality, the cars still need to be driven in tricky situations.

It was only as early as 2017 that researchers began to study driver reaction times. Testing out different ways to alert passengers to put their hands back on the wheel. Auto executive Bob Lutz said, “Human drivers are distracted. They go to sleep. They drink. They text…Autonomous vehicles do none of that,” in defense of self-driving vehicles.

Driverless cars may relieve some of drivers burdens but they can’t eliminate them entirely.

But now researchers look to what happens when passengers drink, text, and drive, or are otherwise impeded from reacting to the wheel. Driverless cars may relieve some of drivers burdens but they can’t eliminate them entirely. At this point, passengers would still have to be alert and engaged. This was a difficulty with regular driving but it continues to be a risk factor in driverless cars. The technology is clearly not ready to take on the distracted driver.