What Are the Biggest Driverless Car Problems?
Trying new things can be scary.
Whether you’re starting a new job, moving to a new city, or looking at a new car, the uncertainty of change can be suffocating. And with a big, scary new change like autonomous vehicles, you’re not even the one behind the wheel (so to speak).
The public has some pretty big concerns about autonomous vehicles. While there are potential benefits of self-driving cars (like these four), there are plenty of driverless car problems that still need solutions.
Let’s take a look at the five main obstacles facing driverless cars right now.
1. The Tech
Driverless technology is amazing. As someone who has been researching and writing about autonomous cars for several months now, I’m struck by what these vehicles can do.
Still, there are a few major technology issues that need to be addressed before driverless cars hit our markets and roads.
There are little things, like driverless cars misreading harmless puddles of water as potholes and slowing down for no reason — and then there’s big stuff.
Right now, most self-driving cars are stumped by harsh weather. Heavy rainfall interferes with sensors, and snow on the ground makes it hard for vehicles to read lines on the road.
All the little mistakes that Google Maps or Siri make will need to be taken care of, too. Chief among driverless car problems is ensuring the vehicles aren’t easily fooled.
The principal goal of the self-driving movement is to make roads safer by eliminating human error. Different sources predict that autonomous vehicles could prevent anywhere from 75% to 90% of the auto accidents we suffer each year.
But taking the reins from the person in the vehicle doesn’t really mean humans are out of the equation. It just means all the what-if scenarios have already been programmed by the people who sent the vehicle forth. And that will have to include programming for some pretty heinous dilemmas.
For example, if a couple of kids ran out in front of your vehicle, it may have to choose between swerving at the risk of your safety or staying on its path at the risk of theirs.
The runaway trolley paradox and other possible autonomous choices have some companies working with experts on philosophy about how to navigate moral quandaries in split-second reactions.
Another big advantage of autonomous vehicles (in theory) is their ability to share information with each other.
Imagine that your truck was aware of an accident ahead or an obstruction in the road, simply because another vehicle already assessed the situation. Intercommunication between vehicles would be incredible — but there are some significant questions.
Will computers be able to transmit information in areas of poor reception? Will competing driverless entities work together so that one brand’s SUV can warn another’s about traffic ahead? How much information will vehicles share with each other without sacrificing the privacy of passengers?
That leads into another driverless car problem . . .
How will self-driving vehicles be secured?
While no one bats an eye at their iPhone’s terms of service agreement, the public may have more pause about their vehicle sharing their personal information with servers (and other vehicles) across the country.
And for good reason. Back in 2015, Fiat Chrysler had to recall 1.4 million vehicles when it was revealed that they could be wirelessly taken over.
Whether it’s your privacy or control of the vehicle that is at risk, the possibility of your vehicle being hacked is frightening. Companies will need to be deliberate in combating an opportunity for car-jackers to work wirelessly.
2. The Laws
You might remember that in my first self-driving car post, I predicted how soon driverless cars will arrive. When we make those estimates, it’s important to note that autonomous vehicles aren’t just waiting on enough successful road tests.
It’s inevitable that the main place we’ll see autonomous tech held up is in our legislatures. While there will be states like Arizona that welcome the possible economic benefit of lax regulations, many areas of the country will respond more like California — with healthy skepticism, expecting companies to comply with developing laws.
(Unfortunately, after Arizona welcomed them, one of Uber’s self-driving units was involved in a crash, and Uber temporarily halted all driverless tests. The autonomous vehicle was not at fault.)
Lawmakers everywhere will be wrestling with how to regulate these advancements.
Another hurdle for self-driving cars will be liability.
If you were in a fender bender this morning, chances are Ford or Nissan or Fiat Chrysler is not going to be held responsible for damages. But with self-driving cars, the rules might change.
Will liability stay with the drivers, who likely have some ability to take over vehicles in hairy situations? Or will original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) be the ones taking blame when their systems fail? Would that kind of responsibility make them hesitant to manufacture autonomous models?
3. The Price
Whether driverless vehicles will be a luxury item or available to an expanse of the middle class will depend a lot on who gets there first. Several companies are chasing an autonomous future for transportation, with some different motives in play.
While nobody’s goal in a capitalist marketplace is universal robot chauffeurs, a current automaker like Ford will wield autonomous tech differently than, say, Uber.
My best guess is that if a ride-sharing company is the first to get driverless cars, it will put pressure on auto manufacturers to make the tech available on a wider scale, instead of letting only upper-class Americans benefit from a hands-free commute.
But the biggest benefits of driverless vehicles can be attained only when human error is removed from our roads. Monopolizing driverless functionality would hinder the tech’s chance to cut down on accidents and auto-related deaths, because streets and highways would still be dominated by people.
Which brings us to maybe the largest concern . . .
4. The Neighbors
Every flu season, I joke that if everybody else — my family, friends, and coworkers — got their immunizations, there would be no need for me to get a shot. The flawed philosophy is that with everyone else reducing the risk of infection, the strains can’t find me.
There’s ample reason to conclude that fully-functioning self-driving cars will cut down on auto accidents. Already, the majority of accidents involving driverless vehicles are the fault of a human driver in another car (like this autonomous Uber crash).
Still, humans are skeptical. Considering that driverless tech has the greatest chance of reducing accidents when it’s on the road with other driverless tech, perhaps the biggest obstacle to the goal of accident prevention will be the stubborn relative or neighbor who “just doesn’t trust those things.”
Folks selling driverless will have to win the public over to convert enough drivers. In the meantime, companies will need to demonstrate benefits and improve the way autonomous vehicles handle the chaotic driving of human beings.
5. The Future
Nobody in the 1800s could have predicted exactly how much the horseless carriage would affect American life. From culture to the economy, it was a revolution.
Even if futurists are right about the massive impact of driverless capability, we can’t know exactly how it will play out. Still, there are a couple of changes we can predict.
The loss of jobs to automation might be the most poignant economic problem facing America in the next decade. While some politicians carried favor in this last election cycle talking about jobs that have left the country, it’s the ones replaced by robotics that we most need to address.
In the face of continuing automation, we have to ask how we’ll create new jobs or shift society to accommodate the changing world of work.
Unfortunately, truck drivers, cab drivers, and certainly Uber drivers may see their jobs disappear before anyone has an answer ready.
I’ve mentioned this one before, but as Ian Adams and Anne Hobson point out in this Slate article, self-driving cars will not just revolutionize travel.
“They will also change the way we die,” they write in this fascinating piece on what the loss of auto accidents might do to organ donation prospects.
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There’s a lot to unpack when it comes to driverless car problems — and how autonomous vehicles are poised to transform everything about the automotive market.
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