The Autonomous Auto

 By Alex Casbara, May, 2014
 
Google self driving car
Google's Self Driving Car; CC BY- 2.0 By: Steve Jurvetson via Wikimedia Commons
Have you heard about Silicon Valley’s robo-cars? Five years ago, Google released a fleet of sensor-mounted, self-driving vehicles on California roads, and the tech giant recently celebrated 700,000 successful miles with a video explaining how their autonomous car safely navigates the streets.

Cars of the Future

Car travel has firmly established itself as a linchpin of modern society and economy, but the ubiquitous automobile may soon be re-imagined in the Digital Age. Automakers are utilizing smaller sensors and interactive GPS to integrate semi-automated functions into our vehicles: traffic-jam assistants use radar to navigate stop-and-go congestion; lane keeping prevents unwanted drift on the highway; and digital parking assist may turn the notorious parallel park into a chilling campfire legend. Trending technologies in the automotive industry hint towards a different model of automotive transportation - one that completely bypasses the human driver. 
Industrial Robots
Assembly Line to Autopilot; CC-BY-SA-3.0 By: Mixabest via Wikimedia Commons  
Robots like these may soon be steering your car while you nap in the driver’s seat.

Social Benefits

Advances in automated driving could have monumental social significance. Most importantly, computerized pilots with lightning-fast response times will replace our imperfect human reflexes on the road, thus reducing automobile accidents. Robo-chauffeurs offer increased mobility for the elderly, the infirmed, the young, and the impaired. Other benefits include greater fuel efficiency, reduced gridlock, increased highway capacity, and a redefined parking network . If autonomous cars are accepted wholesale, the financial savings may be in the trillions.

Potential Obstacles

As the technology and automotive industries strive to achieve the driverless dream, they will undoubtedly face a gamut of regulatory obstacles and social concerns. Insurance and liability models must define responsibility in accidents involving self-driving cars. Consumers will raise questions of cyber-security, software reliability, and the price of driverless technology. Even if autonomous cars are widely adopted, they will continue to share the road with millions of human drivers.
 
How will the automotive industry, an industry worth $400 billion annually, respond to this emerging technology?
Almost all major automobile manufacturers - including Volvo, Audi, Tesla, Nissan, Toyota, Mercedes-Benz, Ford, and General Motors - are racing to develop reliable autonomous options. Clearly, auto manufacturers are preparing for a potentially revolutionary shift in vehicular travel. But what will happen to the couriers, bus drivers, cabbies, and truckers who rely on the human-auto relationship to make a living? For example, Google’s recent investment in the on-demand rideshare service Uber may represent a direct threat to the taxi industry. If the autonomous car becomes commonplace, this workforce cannot be left in the dust.

Consumer Decision

Ultimately, the consumer will decide whether or not autonomous cars satisfy concerns of security, comfort, and efficiency. However, Google’s 700,000 mile test drive may have already established robotic superiority on the road. The self-driving fleet has reported two accidents over the last five years: a rear-ending at a stoplight,and a fender bender caused by the self-driving car’s human driver who had temporarily taken manual control. If both accidents were caused by human error, do you think the autopilot should stay in command?

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