Artificial Intelligence & Self-driving Vehicles

Artificial Intelligence & Self-driving Vehicles

While it’s taken years to get to this point, it appears that self-driving vehicles could be right around the corner. Over the past five years, the technology has advanced to the point that a vehicle can be driven solely through the control of a computer that makes all of the steering, acceleration, breaking, and navigation decisions to keep a vehicle on the road, avoid collisions, and reach a destination. In fact, Tesla, Uber, Apple, and Google are pushing this technology and racing to see who gets there first.

That’s quite a feat, but there’s still the question of whether the technology and, more importantly, we as a society are prepared to have vehicles drive on our roads without a human driver. It’s true that humans cause some 30-40,000 deaths each year in accidents. A properly designed AI able to oversee all the functions of driving a vehicle offers the promise of greatly reducing this tragedy. It would do so by eliminating human distractions and impairments, such as alcohol, drugs, use of electronics and other devices, and fatigue.

Unfortunately, no application of training and technology will ever eliminate all vehicle deaths. This raises the problem of how will we react to an accident caused by a vehicle guided by artificial intelligence, as happened in Arizona recently. Even if self-driving vehicles eliminated 90% of accidents and fatalities, humans would want someone to be held liable for damage and responsible for any remaining injuries or fatalities. Who would that be? The manufacturer? The vehicle owner? The passengers?

Aside from the multitude of legal issues, people affected by such accidents would expect the AI controlling the vehicle to be perfect, to make no mistakes. Perhaps because of the impersonal nature of an AI, victims might become more incensed that a machine caused them harm. A possible outcome would be a backlash against a technology that was saving many but not all lives.

Should self-driving vehicles become well accepted and successful, we could expect companies like Uber to adopt their use as cabs. Widespread use and convenience of such driverless cabs would present the opportunity for current drivers to abandon some or all of their owned and leased vehicles. Perhaps they would only have one vehicle per household for family outings and use the driverless cabs for commuting to and from work. Maybe they would give up the need to finance and house a car they only use a dozen hours a week.

If that happens, it could lead to a collapse in automotive industry as fewer people would be buying cars. Of course, traffic congestion would likely go up with all the driverless cabs driving to pick up and drop off their passengers. And all that driving to pick up and after drop off will increase the consumption of fuel. Unintended consequences should give us something to think about.

In any case, fewer vehicles being parked all day would free up parking lots and garages for other uses. It would also free up resources from buying cars to be available for other uses.

On the other hand, some observers aren’t as optimistic about self-driving vehicles due to the software complexity of managing road changes and construction and weather conditions. They claim that this technology will be constantly in development and never reach the point of being released for general use.

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