For better or worse: Self-Driving Cars

// Posted by on 01/30/2012 (10:18 PM)

A couple weeks ago, I was headed out of town for the weekend. As I was driving on the 4-hour trip, I began to grow tired. It was at that point that I thought to myself how nice it would be if the car could drive itself. I would only have to enter my destination and the car would take care of the rest, while I could sleep, do homework, or work on a project.

In an article in the February issue of Wired, there are two different cars that are talked about. The first is Google’s self-driving car, which has logged over 100,000 miles driving around California. There are humans in the car to ensure that the technology works correctly, but they do not have to do anything for the car to go. The other car is the S-Class Mercedes-Benz with Attention Assistance function, which works while humans are driving.

While I believe that Google’s car is the more interesting and definitely the more advanced one, the Attention Assistance function on Mercedes seems to become widespread in the nearer future. This function tracks more than 70 different elements while the human is driving and makes adjustments or gives warnings as deemed necessary. This function fits well with our discussion in class last week of post-human. The car and the human are working together in this circumstance and this relationship is meant to protect the human and to be safer. These two parties are giving and receiving information so seamlessly, it can be difficult to notice.

There are definitely benefits to self-driving cars: they are safer, quicker, and can allow humans to be more productive. These cars are safer because the drivers would not be distracted by cell phones, radios, GPSs, children, etc and it has been demonstrated by Google that self-driving cars are more perceptive to obstacles and other vehicles than are humans. At the busiest times, only five percent of the pavement has traffic, so one would assume that with self-driving cars, more traffic would be able to move smoothly. Finally, if those people sitting in the driver’s seat did not have to drive, they could use their time in other ways and potentially be more productive.

As I was reading this article, I grew excited, yet worried. While self-driving cars sound awesome and could be very beneficial, there were some worries that came into mind. Although I am sure that the companies working on these prototypes are working against these, what happens if the car malfunctions? These cars can not reboot in the middle of the highway going 75 mph like a computer can sitting on a desk, so there must be ways to prevent this from ever happening. Is there a potential that these cars could be hacked and end up driving somewhere that the passengers did not want to go? This could cause some major backups or even worse issues.

In response to the thought of whether all of these technologies are simply to allow humans to not be taken away from their technology, the author of this article, Tom Vanderbilt, wrote “Maybe the problem is not that texting and Facebook are distracting us from driving. Maybe the problem is that driving distracts us from our digital lives” (124). He brings up an interesting point and one that I am victim of myself. Self-driving cars will allow us to do safely what many of us already do (often illegally) which is talk on our phones and text while driving.

Are self-driving cars just one of the next steps in technology that will become the norm or are they something we need to protect ourselves from? Will self-driving cars be beneficial or are they potentially dangerous and/or detrimental to society? There is no doubt that these cars will change society, but will it be for the better?

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Renee said...

I read this article as well and after reading it I couldn’t help but wonder if self-driving cars will be one of the technological developments that the government restrains to protect industry. In class we talked about numerous examples of this such as magnetic tape which was invented around 1904 but wasn’t allowed onto the commercial market in answering machines until 1980 because the government was worried about its effect of the phone industry. From what I understand, the google car is just a proto-type which still requires much more testing. But even if it were ready for widespread distribution today, do you think that the American government would stifle its production to protect American car companies and the jobs of Americans who work for those companies?

// 01/30/2012 at 11:27 pm

Abbey said...

I’ll admit that I’ve had a lot of dreams in which I’m in a self-driving car. The concept seems so cool, new, innovative, exciting, etc. on the surface. However, during the course of my dream, I always begin to panic that the car is driving too fast, or won’t stop at a traffic light, or won’t see that biker on the side of the road. I wake up in a cold sweat every time I have these dreams, worrying that allowing the car I’m driving to be in control is not the right decision. After reading this post, I think these fears are valid ones. I guess it depends on how developed the technology is before it hits the general public, but I don’t believe that these cars will change society for the better. First, I’m not sold on the idea that if someone is too tired or lazy to drive somewhere that they should be able to get in their car and have it drive them there anyway; even if the car is self-driving, the person in the car should always be alert to their surroundings. It reminds me of that story of a man who drove into a lake because his GPS told him to, and he was even the one in charge of the car in that situation. Second, I don’t think that the idea of driving distracting us from our digital lives is really valid– I don’t know everyone in the world, but no one I know has a “digital life” that can’t be put on hold for 10 minutes while they drive to pick up dinner. We already have cars that park themselves, though, so maybe it isn’t so far off…

// 01/31/2012 at 7:15 pm

Allison said...

Will cars that drive themselves become the norm before flying cars? In the January British issue of WIRED, Matt Hussey writes an article, Fly-drive Commuting: Wait no longer—the flying car is finally ready for take off. The Massachusetts based company, Terrafugia, has created a “roadable aircraft.” It can seat two people with some luggage, runs on petroleum, and has a flight range of 787 km. With 518 metres of runway and the push of a button, wings will expend and have this car in the air in just 30 seconds. Terrafugia hopes to begin selling these cars in late 2012 for around $279,000. The only thing is you do have to have your pilots license!

// 01/31/2012 at 7:45 pm

Tommy said...

I read this article the other day, and immediately realized that I can’t wait for a car that drives itself, because yes, I am that lazy. I didn’t really stop and think about any of the negatives, however, until reading this post. Although my computer rarely freezes are needs to be rebooted, it’s always just a minor hassle; if the computer was driving my car though, that would be a significant problem. Furthermore, since it is a computer, I didn’t think about the fact that it could be hacked and reprogrammed. Since I’m sure one day these cars will be on the road, although, like Renee said, it could be awhile, I think there need to be a lot of guidelines planned out in advance. Maybe these types of cars only drive themselves on particularly long trips, or when the driver is too fatigued to operate safely, or maybe even only on certain roads in certain cities, etc. Despite the risk, however, I wouldn’t mind a car that drives me to class every morning.

// 01/31/2012 at 9:26 pm

Kelsey said...

It’s an interesting debate that I’m sure will only escalate as these grow closer to actually being seen on the roads. It is a tough choice, a friend of mine died in a car wreck 2 weeks ago because the car that smashed into him was not paying attention to the fact that there was a traffic jam on the highway. Maybe a car that drove itself would have saved him or maybe things like that would still happen because the car’s computer malfunctioned?
It’s an uncertain realm but I have no doubts that these same questions are on the minds of the people designing them. And, I believe that no person would want an accident of any sort on their conscience because the technology they designed had a glitch. Nothing is perfect, but I don’t think we will see cars like this on the roads until creators are as close to perfect as they can get.

// 01/31/2012 at 11:25 pm