With tens of thousands of people hurt and killed on roadways all over the world, one of the hottest topics for discussion in the automotive industry is about making the driving experience safer for everyone. Although accidents are impossible to avoid because of mechanical error, the promise of self-driving cars is that it could reduce or eliminate the impact of human-caused collisions while we travel.
More than 30,000 people die on the highways, side streets, and residential roads of the United States each year. The vast majority of these incidents are 100% preventable, with the CDC reporting that many of them are due to distracted or fatigued driving.
As the numbers of injuries go up, the push to create safer vehicles continues to increase. Not only do we need to make drives more aware of their surroundings, but we must also improve the technologies which are available behind the wheel to ensure that everyone can reach their intended destination safely.
Self-driving cars solve many of the issues described above. This technology might also create an entirely new set of problems for us to manage over time. That is why the pros and cons of this idea deserve a review.
List of the Key Pros of Self Driving Cars
1. It eliminates the problem of human error while driving.
Computers are the ideal driver because they eliminate all of the bad driving behaviors that humans have when they get behind the wheel. Over 80% of the accidents which occur in the United States are a result of driver error, which means a self-driving vehicle takes a lot of danger out of the transportation equation automatically.
According to data from the Insurance Information Institute, 27.8% of accidents are because a driver was going too fast for the conditions or under the influence of drugs, medication, or alcohol. 7.5% of collisions were due to a failure to stay in the correct lane. Another 7% occurred because there was a failure to yield the right of way. Self-driving cars could eliminate all of these issues.
2. Self-driving cars do not become distracted by the conditions.
A computer might not be 100% perfect, but it is far closer to that standard than a human driver could ever be. One of the unique advantages that a self-driving car provides is a lack of distraction when you travel down the road. By using complex algorithms that guide the vehicle in the correct lane, calculate the appropriate stopping distance, and other information that’s available while on the road, there is a significant decrease in the risk of an automobile accident when using this technology.
Sharon Heit, who is the mother of a texting-while-driving victim, told the NHTSA this for their PSA with the Ad Council: “In a split second, you could ruin your future, injure or kill others, and tear a hole in the heart of everyone who loves you.” Removing the distractions can eliminate the problem.
3. It would increase the speed of our transportation networks.
Did you know that the average American commuter wastes more than a full week in traffic each year? Even with improvements to our transportation networks, drivers in Los Angeles, New York City, Chicago, and Seattle can spend over 100 hours each year idling in traffic. Not only does this issue waste their time, but it also contributes a heftier amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases to our atmosphere.
Self-driving cars could reduce the problems we have with congestion because each vehicle would be in contact with every other one on the highway. Computers would eliminate the bad driving habits to improve the efficiencies of our current infrastructure. That means everyone could arrive at their intended destination with greater speed.
4. Self-driving cars would create more independence for some communities.
Although self-driving cars cannot eliminate all risks, this technology could provide more independence for people who have a disability severe enough to keep them homebound without assistance. These vehicles could transport people who are blind, deaf, or have a physical disability that limits their ability to navigate a car under its current setup. Instead of relying on paratransit, a caretaker, or the kindness of others, people in this situation could get into their vehicle and tell it where to go.
5. This technology would save millions of dollars each year.
Driverless vehicles would reduce the amount of property destruction that occurs every year due to accidents, collisions with wildlife, and similar expenses that happen during these unexpected circumstances. Over $1 billion could be saved each year in just the United States by transitioning most drivers over to this technology. That would mean lower automotive insurance costs, fewer medical judgments due to damage, and more money that could be used to make investments and build wealth.
6. Self-driving vehicles would help to save a lot of lives.
Adrienne LaFrance wrote in The Atlantic in 2015 that the presence of self-driving cars in the United States could save over 30,000 lives per year. This shift would equal the changes that occurred between the 1970s and 80s, when over 60,000 people died in traffic accidents in the generation before. “Researchers estimate that driverless cars could, by mid-century, reduce traffic fatalities by up to 90%,” she writes.
Estimates from 2018 published by ZDNet increase the annual number of people saved to 35,000 per year. Although there could still be computer mistakes or mechanical issues that create problems on the roadways, there would be much less risk getting behind the wheel with this technology when compared to our current situation.
7. It could help the environment in numerous ways.
Self-driving cars often use electricity as their primary fuel source instead of gasoline. That means there would be fewer emissions produced by each car, reducing the amount of pollution that we experience in our urban centers. There would be fewer issues with braking and accelerating because the car’s computer would manage everything, enhancing the fuel economy of each vehicle as well. That means we would need less oil, which would reduce our energy needs, and that would eventually help us all to save money too.
8. Self-driving cars would give us a better riding experience.
Drivers get the short end of the traveling experience in the modern vehicle. Passengers now have the option to watch TV, listen to music, or browse the Internet while the person behind the wheel must keep their eyes on the road. When everyone is concentrating on their devices, then there are fewer opportunities for conversation. Self-driving cars would let the driver take part in this entertainment while the vehicle gets you to your destination.
This advantage could help you to be more productive because you could work from your vehicle while it drives you to work. It would reduce the fatigue that occurs when driving during rush hour or over long distances. You could even travel overnight, sleep in the car, and wake up refreshed even though you were are on a long-distance trip.
9. It would reduce the number of car prowls that occur in each community.
When we create self-driving cars, then we are making a vehicle that is highly self-aware. That means it would become almost impossible to steal something from inside the cabin. Various locks and interfaces that incorporate biometrics would keep your valuables protected or prevent an unauthorized person from using the car in the first place. Even if you were in an unsafe neighborhood, the investment in this technology would reduce policing expenses and insurance costs while providing you with a greater peace of mind.
10. We could drive faster with driverless vehicles on the road.
Because computers would be handling the driving responsibilities for long-distance trips, the design of our highway system would support a higher speed limit on straight stretches of road. That means we could arrive at our destinations faster without increasing the risk of an accident. Each autonomous vehicle could calculate its distance between vehicles, determine the highest and safest possible speed, and then work with cabin technologies to ensure every passenger remains safe.
List of the Key Cons of Self Driving Cars
1. There is an increased threat of hacking and sabotage with self-driving cars.
If a vehicle becomes autonomous, then it must have a secure firewall in place to prevent any form of hacking. Criminals could take advantage of security gaps in the programming to create errors or feedback loops that could lead to accidents. There is even the possibility that some could reprogram a vehicle to do whatever they wanted without the consent of the owner.
We know this issue exists because the computer systems on our current vehicles are already susceptible to hacking. Chris Valasek of IOActive and Charlie Miller of Twitter were able to use the latest techniques to take over the electrical system of a Jeep Cherokee without direct access to the vehicle, shutting it down from 10 miles away.
2. It could lead to fewer transportation-related employment opportunities.
If we no longer need drivers to transport goods from community-to-community, then there could be a massive reduction in the number of driving jobs in a community. Everyone from Uber drivers to UPS personnel could find that the efficiencies of automation make them an obsolete part of the labor force. Although the early days of this technology would likely require a driver to be present to manage a potential emergency, there would also be a significant reduction in the number of positions that become available – which means less money coming into the local economy.
3. There would be less eye contact during transportation interactions.
We know that long-distance driving would be safer when using a self-driving vehicle, but would it be as effective for urban situations? If you have ever spent time driving in a large city, then you know that there are numerous close calls between drivers and passengers that occur every day. One of the only ways that pedestrians can sometimes safely traverse a crosswalk is to make eye contact with the driver.
On March 18, 2018, an Uber vehicle driving in autonomous mode hit 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg as she crossed a street in Tempe, AZ. The vehicle continued on after the incident, even though there was a driver behind the wheel as well. This accident caused Uber to suspend its operations in this field in multiple cities.
4. Self-driving cars would be in charge of making the judgment calls.
There are times when a driver must make a judgment call that puts the life of everyone in their vehicle and in others into their hands. Experienced drivers will often know where their path of escape is in any situation, giving them a chance to save lives. Self-driving cars might stop if it can detect an object in the middle of the road, but it may not see the value in swerving to avoid a child rather than put the adult passengers at risk.
Even as AI becomes more adaptable and aware of driving expectations, there is still a real-world human judgment that is sometimes necessary to manage that this technology may be unable to do with our current resources.
5. Weather conditions could impact the quality of autonomous driving.
Self-driving vehicles can perform well when weather conditions are optimal. We have already discovered that night-time sensors may not make the car as effective in an autonomous mode as it would be during daylight hours. There are also questions to consider when precipitation creates adverse roadways to navigate.
Our current system requires the vehicle to track the painted lines on the road to ensure that the car stays in the correct lane. If snow were to cover these lines, then it would be virtually impossible for the computer to maintain full control. That means there may always be an element of human driving that must be present in an automobile, no matter how advanced our technologies become.
6. There is the kangaroo problem which must still be resolved.
When Volvo began to test their self-driving vehicles in Australia, they noticed a unique wildlife problem with their sensors. Technical Manager David Pickett put it this way in an interview with ABC. “When [the kangaroo] is in the air, it actually looks like it’s further away, then it lands, and it looks closer.”
The reality of our sensor technologies right now is that they are imperfect. We have taken great strides toward creating an autonomous system that can recognize many hazards, but it does not see them all. That is why most automakers are using semi-autonomous features in some models because there is still too much theory and not enough fact available with this technology.
7. Self-driving vehicles create a question of legal responsibility.
When our technologies change, the laws that we have which govern our activities must also adapt to the new circumstances. Most jurisdictions as of 2019 have not passed road laws that govern who is liable for an accident should an issue with an autonomous vehicle occur. In December 2017, a Chevy Bolt driving autonomously hit a motorcycle while the vehicle made a lane change.
GM stated that the Bolt “glanced” the side of the motorcycle. The injured cyclist then filed a lawsuit against the automaker, making it the first of its kind holding the manufacturer responsible instead of the driver for the accident. As this technology continues to improve, we must create rules that govern responsibility to eliminate gray areas in the law where no one might be on the hook if something happens.
8. There is a cost issue to face when implementing self-driving technologies.
When you look at the 2019 auto market, there are semi-autonomous vehicles available from a variety of manufacturers in the $30,000 range. If you want to purchase one that is fully autonomous, then Allstate suggests that the technology could add at least $100,000 to the final cost of the vehicle. Even Tesla’s Autopilot system comes in at $10,000 for only that technology.
The average price of a new car in the United States is already unbelievably high. Experian notes that it will cost $34,000 to purchase a vehicle today, even when you look for affordable options. That would likely push the cost of a true self-driving vehicle to over $125,000 – a price that the average middle class family cannot afford.
9. We still do not trust the technology that creates self-driving vehicles.
Only 1 in 5 current drivers say that they would trust their self-driving car to get them to their destination safely. Just 7% said that they would use an autonomous vehicle and trust it without driving it first, providing that it was tested and safe. That’s the same number of people who say that they can drive better than any computer or robot every could. Almost 60% say that they prefer to have control of their own car at all times when on the road.
When incidents that cause injuries or fatalities include self-driving technologies, it makes everyone leery about how successful this technology could be. Our tolerance for mistakes from machines is much lower than what we accept from humans already.
10. There could be privacy concerns to consider with self-driving vehicles.
The computer of a self-driving vehicle would be storing plenty of critical data about the habits of each driver. It would keep track of your various destinations, allowing someone to know what stores and businesses you prefer to visit in your community. It would note the times of operation for the car as well, which would indicate when you were away from home. Not only could this help marketers send you targeted information more often, but it could also put your safety at risk should someone access it without good intend.
We already have very few protections in place that guard our privacy, and automakers might make it a requirement that they can sell this collected information as a requirement to complete a purchase.
11. Self-driving cars require other autonomous vehicles to be successful.
A self-driving car can calculate distance and understand speed, but it does not entirely comprehend some of the other signals that you can see while driving right now. What would happen if you encountered a slow driver with their emergency flashers on? How would the vehicle handle an interaction with a car that had its brake or turning indicators failing to work?
This disadvantage is another reason why human insight into the driving process is often the preferred process for most people today. There are times when the eyes can see more than what the sensors detect.
Verdict on the Key Pros and Cons of Self Driving Cars
Self-driving cars are going to be in our future. It is more a matter of “when” than a question of “if” at this point. That means we must prepare ourselves for changes to our transportation networks over the next generation.
Change can be good. Kids from the 1980s can remember how difficult it was to travel across the United States with a 55mph speed limit in place. Now there are higher speed limits and other changes to driving laws that simplify the processes of driving, such as the use of city-wide HOV lanes, express lanes, and distraction avoidance reminders.
The key pros and cons of self-driving cars will help us all to create and embrace this technology in the coming years because we can enhance efficiencies while learning how to manage these changes. By recognizing the potential dangers today, we can create a safer tomorrow.
Natalie Regoli is a child of God, devoted wife, and mother of two boys. She has a Master's Degree in Law from The University of Texas. Natalie has been published in several national journals and has been practicing law for 18 years.