Should we trust self-driving cars?

In this May 13, 2015, file photo, Google's self-driving Lexus car drives along street during a demonstration at Google campus in Mountain View, Calif. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar, File)

The idea of being driven around by our own cars has triggered a common fear and distrust of this technology. After seeing so many movies and reading so many books about destructive and considerable evil robots and personified machinery, who could blame us? Our reaction to autonomous innovation cannot base our opinion of self-driving cars. From a solely objective perspective, self-driving cars can easily be seen as a reliable mode of transportation.

Autonomous driving eliminates the variation of collision rates by age of drivers. Collision rates of drivers between 16 and 17 have been decreased from around 22,000 to 600 crashes per million miles thanks to autonomous cars. Of these 600 collisions per million miles includes accidents that are not caused by the autonomous, but by the second party driver. Despite these statistics, parents are still more comfortable sending their children in conventional cars. Fear of technological control of daily activities has become so widespread through the media that alternative methods of transportation, those that nearly eliminate reckless driving, are avoided. Unlike us, a self-driving car cannot get distracted by a text, the appetizing smell of food in the passenger seat, or the really nice Ferrari on the opposite side of the road, yet we are hesitant to give it control of the steering wheel.

Silicon Valley is a central innovator in the autonomous car market; more and more self-driving cars are sitting in Palo Alto and Cupertino traffic. Having grown up there, I remember when seeing a Google self-driving car was the center of attention in traffic. Gradually, however, more autonomous car models appeared on the freeway; so many self-driving cars began to roam around Silicon Valley that I merely acknowledged them and went on with my day. Local spread of innovation is the first stage to globalizing the use of autonomous cars. When the trust people in Silicon Valley have for self-driving cars extends beyond the scope of Palo Alto and Cupertino, this mode of transportation will be considered a safe way to get around.

Self-driving and traditional automobiles are prone to malfunction, so the credibility of self-driving cars is not very different from modern cars. The fear of task-performing technology is embedded in the possibility of its malfunction. Many argue that the tragic Tesla autopilot accident serves as a reason not to trust autonomous cars. The car was driving down a road and failed to brake when a truck made a sudden intercepting left turn. This tragedy is a result of brake malfunction, which is also a common issue in cars operated by a driver. Conventional cars have also proved to be susceptible to malfunction that cannot be controlled or maintained by the driver. Take, for instance, the 2009-2011 Toyota recalls. Toyota drivers were prone to losing control of the brake or accelerator pedals while driving. The accidents began in 2009, with reported faulty floor mats that interfered with the pressure placed on the brake pad. Toyota reacted by advising its drivers to remove the floor mat, but this did not stop accidents from occurring. The accelerator pedal in many models became harder for the driver to press and now may even get stuck in a certain position, so the driver loses control of the acceleration of the vehicle. In response, Toyota installed an anti-brake lock system, which also brought about car malfunctions where the driver was unable to press the brake pedal. These malfunctions were the cause of numerous collisions, which together resulted in the deaths of approximately 89 drivers and passengers. The reliability of autonomous cars, therefore, cannot be hindered by the fear of its malfunction, since conventional cars are prone to faultiness. Besides the difference in vehicular operator, autonomous and conventional cars function exactly the same. They both have braking and accelerating systems, which can be prone to malfunction.

The developed sensor systems and reaction time of self-driving cars have prevented collisions and therefore provide safer driving. With the near elimination of human error as a prominent cause of accidents, autonomous driving has introduced a less hazardous alternative.


Keren Blaunstein is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus and can be reached via email at keren.blaunstein@uconn.edu.