In 2016, there were over 37,000 deaths caused by car crashes in the United States, with over 90 per cent of those being caused by simple human error. Driverless vehicles have been pitched as a possible solution to this issue and of the future of transportation in general. Recently, a US based transport company, Transdev, has come under fire for testing their autonomous vehicles by using them as school buses. Despite this controversy and misuse of the technology, in reality, once the appropriate legislation has been passed, driverless vehicles are an inevitable future.
The technology behind autonomous vehicles already exists. Examples range from the sensors in Toyota Corollas that track lane changes to the advanced sensor coverage in Teslas that already allow for autonomous driving. Self-driving cars have already been through millions of miles of testing. In fact, just by obeying traffic laws, self-driving cars are safer than many human drivers.
So if this technology already exists and has been proven to work why isn’t every car manufacturer starting to produce fully autonomous cars? The issue lies in the negative public opinion and lack of appropriate legislation. A recent Reuters poll showed that two-thirds of Americans are uncomfortable with the idea of self-driving cars, which aligns with the backlash seen against Transdev’s autonomous school buses.
On the issue of legislation, there are many ethical questions that must be asked. MIT launched an online tool, Moral Machine, to gather human perspectives on the ethical questions driverless vehicles might face. The tool pitches scenarios such as whether or not the car should choose to kill two passengers or five pedestrians. These scenarios show some of the legal difficulties driverless cars face.
Despite these challenges, driverless cars are still the future of transportation.
The legal challenges faced are no different than with any innovation, such as the move from horses to cars themselves, and once addressed, will help usher in the age of driverless vehicles. Many of the legal questions do not arise from errors a driverless car will make, but instead how to react to errors that human drivers and pedestrians will make, and the law already addresses many of them. In fact, most of the reported crashes involving driverless cars have been a human driver or pedestrian’s fault, not the autonomous vehicle.
After laws and regulations are in place, and the risk is reduced, companies can begin using the technology that already exists to produce more elegant and efficient driverless vehicles. The vehicles, already shown to be safer than human operated ones, will both improve public opinion and reduce the number of accidents by removing human error, the number one factor in motor accidents.
Inevitably, in years to come, we will all be travelling in driverless vehicles, as it will become evident that it will eventually be the safest and most convenient way to travel.
Image Credit: the NRMA via Flickr