Self-driving cars can be divided into semi-autonomous cars and fully autonomous cars. Many of us already have semi-autonomous cars with driver assistance; including features like auto-parking, emergency braking and lane warning. However, when the car drives itself continuously for minutes or hours without the driver interfering, the car is regarded as fully autonomous.
The Business Insider predicts that within year 2020 nearly 10 million cars with self-driving abilities will be on the road. Google have been working on driverless cars for several years and in December 2014 they revealed a fully functional prototype without a steering wheel or brakes. But Google are not the only driver of this self-driving car race, and already at the start of 2016 we have seen a large amount of other announcements regarding driverless cars. Rumour says that Apple is also joining the race with an electric self-driving car, iCar. Tesla has already installed their Autopilot features in all Teslas built since October 2014, and they recently announced plans for self-driving cars without a driver! In a blog-post, they wrote: “Eventually, your Tesla will be able to drive anywhere across the country to meet you, charging itself along the way. It will sync with your calendar to know exactly when to arrive”. This implies that your car will function as your personal taxi, without even having to be instructed where to go! What impact will this have on the Taxi Industry? One can only imagine what impact these cars will have on the transportation system of the future! The Independent refers to a study that concludes that these driverless cars can disrupt the democratization of car-owning that has made the foundation for personal transport of the last century.
In South Korea they are already testing a driverless taxi program; a taxi has been driving students at a campus for six months without any accidents. The taxi is equipped with cameras, laser scanners and other sensors to capture all information needed for the operating system to steer the car. Even though it is a driverless car, there still is a person available in the car that can take over the driving manually for security reasons.
Experts assume that driverless cars will dramatically reduce the number of accidents where cars are involved, as 94 % of crashes are due to human error. It is assumed that deaths caused by car accidents could be reduced by 1.2 millions worldwide. Self-driving cars will also allow people to be more mobile; elderly, blind people or other people that are not able to drive on their own will be able to break out of their isolation.
It is clear that driverless cars provide enormous possibilities, but they also represent huge challenges. How do you program a self-driving car to handle all possible traffic situations? The car needs to be able to cope with absolutely all eventualities and crisis situations. Is it even possible to make a self-driving system that never makes any mistakes? And in situations where an accident is inevitable, how do the self-driving system choose how to react?
The last question is often referred to as the Trolley Problem. Philosophers have been working on this problem for decades, and there is no “right” answer to it. In short, the problem is describing a trolley racing against a group of five people standing on the track and facing the certain death. But by using a switch, you can change the route of the trolley to a different track where only one person is standing. Is it then right to play Almighty and pull the switch to kill just one person (who originally was out of harm’s way) instead of five? If we transpose this problem over to the driverless-car situation, there will perhaps also be a third solution. What if the car could avoid killing other people by instead driving off the road, but then most certainly it will kill it’s own passenger. This implies that the car needs some sort of a moral algorithm that assists in making ethical decisions. In the end, it is the programmers that have to decide how the cars are going to behave in these situations.
So far, it seems that you won’t be able to have a fully autonomous car of your own for at least a few years - they are still at the research stage. However, as the technology advances and the cars become capable of interpreting more complex scenes, it is clear that the philosophical and ethical issues regarding the decisions of the driving system need to be strongly considered and evaluated. So are also legal barriers, regulatory and insurance questions.
Photo: David Yu