Rhys Sosnowski/the Gauntlet

Pulling drivers onto the right track

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Nissan has recently announced its intention to introduce self-driving cars to the market by 2020. The Japanese automaker claims that its self-driving vehicles will accelerate, stop, steer and park autonomously. Though this technology is still under development, Nissan has confirmed that self-driving vehicles will rely heavily upon sensors to navigate. Aside from detecting signs, traffic lights, other vehicles and pedestrians, these sensors will generate 3D maps of the vehicle’s active surroundings that, in conjunction with a separate database of online maps, will tell the car’s computer its exact location. The passenger’s role will be reduced to inputting their desired destination into the car’s GPS.

Self-driving cars have already hit the road. California and Nevada both allow Google’s fleet of self-driving cars on their streets, although a passenger must be present. So far, Google’s automated cars have been involved in only one fender bender, and which actually happened only after a Google employee began driving the car himself. In the 80,467 kilometres Google’s self-driving cars have logged while operating autonomously not one collision has occurred.

The thought of computers behind the wheel is still unsettling. But consider that the automotive industry has only increased the degree in which vehicles function autonomously ever since 1940, the year that Oldsmobile began selling cars with automatic transmissions. Self-driving cars are only the next logical, if dramatic, step in that same direction.

Aside from small improvements since automatic transmission, such as windows and locks, the intelligence of cars has recently spiked due to new robotics and manufacturing technology. In 2005 Mercedes-Benz introduced its pre-safe braking technology. If a frontal crash is imminent an equipped Mercedes will apply its brakes before the reaction threshold of a human driver. And in 2006, Lexus began building its flagship LS sedan with the capability to parallel park itself. Furthermore, Mercedes-Benz has also introduced a drowsiness detection system in its 2010 E-class that is able to monitor a driver’s drowsiness based on his driving patterns. Presumably this technology will be able to detect an impaired driver as well.

Autonomous technology is not exclusive to luxury cars. I commute to university daily in a compact hatchback laden with autonomous technology. I leave for university before sunrise, which activates the automatic headlights. If it rains, my windshield wipers turn on without any action on my part. Since I take the highway, I often rest my legs by turning on cruise control. The physical operation of a modern vehicle consists mostly of steering, signalling and speed control. Surely if Deep Blue, a chess computer, can beat former chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov at his own game, artificial intelligence could perform both the mental and mechanical components of what little driving is left to do on the smooth roads of a modern city.

When self-driving cars enter the market by around 2020 they will improve life for a large portion of the population. Everybody — young, old, sick, disabled — could have the freedom to travel independently. For example, children would be able to use self-driving cars to shuttle themselves to school or their after-school activities and parents would have more time on their hands.

Still, one might question the prudence of allowing children to travel on their own. Kids on skateboards and BMX bikes are already terrifyingly careless, so parental controls on GPS would be a necessity. Very young children obviously still need supervision when travelling, self-driving car or not.

For adult users of self-driving cars, sitting in traffic jams will no longer engender frustration and rage, but will be a chance to relax as drivers could spend traffic jams however they please. Distracted and drunk driving will disappear, significantly reducing the number of fatal collisions. Unfortunately, technological advances can cause job losses, so bus and taxi drivers may face difficulties. However, overall self-driving technology will benefit the economy as costs associated with motor vehicle accidents decline, which currently cost Canadians $19.8 billion annually in injuries alone. We might consider implementing a program to direct these potential savings in securing work for those displaced by the introduction of self-driving cars.

If autonomous cars are to catch on, people must be comfortable with trusting their bodies to computers. Citizens of areas with nightmarish traffic may have less trouble accepting self-driving cars since traffic problems in places like New York and Los Angeles are so ubiquitous. Larger cities tend to have higher collision rates. According to a 2008 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study, accidents often have multiple contributing factors, but the most significant is almost always driver error.

Self-driving cars will refuse to off-road in order to bypass traffic jams. They won’t tailgate, cut in or speed. Speeding alone contributes significantly to the casualty rate in collisions. The loss of these illegal “shortcuts” drivers use to fight through traffic jams will be mitigated by self-driving cars’ ability to consistently take the best route, given a navigational computer’s ability to interpret traffic data much faster than a human operator. These advantages are enormous, but operate under the assumption that the virtual intelligences piloting our cars will work 100 per cent of the time. Picture the horror stories of minivans full of families driving off cliffs due to some miscalculation. But traffic accidents already occur so frequently that a significant statistical decrease, if not near elimination of common collision situations can be predicted.

What people probably fear most about self-driving cars is a loss of control, and since they almost always consider themselves above-average drivers, according to a famous 2002 Journal of Experimental Psychology study on positive self-illusions. They believe themselves to be at less risk for accidents than other individuals. So while the developing technology behind these new vehicles will be difficult to fully realize, it will also likely make roads safer, shorten our commute and provide those who can’t normally drive greater independence. There are potential pitfalls, but automotive makers will cross those bridges as they come to them.