Austin traffic: it’s dangerous; it’s boring; sometimes it’s even enraging—road rage enraging. Now, what if there was a magical technology that cleared traffic from the road, reduced accidents by 90 percent and eliminated your bumper to bumper commute?
Sci-fi and alchemy, right? Nope: autonomous cars.
For me, “autonomous” car lands on my ear better than “driverless” or “self-driving” car. Those last two sound a little too headless horseman or Stephen King. But here we are on the cusp of 2020 with the prospect of autonomous cars as a real thing…a real thing!
There are five levels of autonomy recognized by the industry. Level 1 is familiar to anyone with adaptive cruise control: your car can follow the car in front of you, but it’s not driving itself. Levels 2-4 get you closer to the wizardry of “set it and forget it” level 5 autonomy, in which you input the destination and the car takes over, completely.
What’s the catch? Unintended consequences, you might say. The trucking jobs will disappear, the collision repair industry will fold and companies like Google and Uber will become more influential than ever.
But it’s better for the environment, right? Well, some argue that your carbon footprint might skyrocket because more people will enjoy the luxury of a long commute. This could arguably be canceled out by the fact that traffic jams become a thing of the past and fuel would be sipped and not gulped, but other researchers believe that the 500 percent increase in road capacity created by computer precision driving would mean that there would be exponentially more fuel sipping cars gleefully gliding the roadways.
Geoff Nesnow, writing for StartupGrind, has a massively long and entertaining list of changes on the way. His blog post, “50 Mind-Blowing Implications of Self-Driving Cars (and Trucks)” is simply paradigm shifting stuff.
It’s going to be a welcomed resource for so many— especially children, the physically impaired and the elderly. But what of the ethics? Who’s responsible for wrecks when cars are driving? When a car must decide between hitting a school bus or a child chasing his puppy into the road, how does the programmer prepare the software for such a decision? And what of terrorism and computer glitches? Is road rage sounding a bit like the good old days?
Which brings us back to our old nemesis: road rage. It would just vanish in the age of autonomous autos, right? Well, not so fast. One study suggests that until the fleet of autonomous cars begins to heavily outnumber traditional cars, uncouth drivers will take advantage of autonomous cars and use their predictability against them.
Imagine your autonomous car is playing nice and slowing down for a long yellow light. All the while, Mr. Road Rage (who’s been sniffing your bumper for the past 2 miles) whips around you and steams his way through the intersection. Yikes! Road rage takes on a whole new dimension when your car is well-behaved, but the drivers around it aren’t.
Many of these unexplored and unanswered questions are going to start becoming clearer in the next few years and decades. It’s the right thing for the planet, and it’s the right thing for the people on the planet, but it won’t come easy.
We love our cars, we love our freedom and we love to resist the inevitable. When so many lives can be improved, when so many lives can be saved and when so many opportunities can be embraced, we’re forced to broaden our horizons and find a way forward…even if we’re not the ones in the driver’s seat.
Richard Singleton, MACE, MAMFC, LPC, is the executive director at STARRY in Round Rock.