Science Friday: Eyes on the Road to Tomorrow

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This undated photo provided by Amazon shows a new Echo device for cars that plugs into most vehicles and can be asked to play podcasts, give driving directions or make a call. Amazon wants the most basic of tasks to be controlled by voice, from microwaving potatoes to switching up the music in the car. The company unveiled several gadgets on Thursday, Sept. 20, 2018, furthering Amazon’s goal of placing its Alexa voice assistant everywhere its customers are. (Amazon via AP)

Self-driving cars instill both hope and fear into the hearts of drivers everywhere. Albeit an invention that sounds like the subject of a particularly disturbing Black Mirror episode, the temptation to have artificial intelligence take the wheel is strong. According to Stanford Magazine Senior Writer, Melinda Sacks, 90 percent of driving-related deaths could be avoided with self-driving, or autonomous, cars, which would save about 300,000 lives per decade in the United States alone.

In addition, autonomous cars would be able to transport themselves between users, allowing people to share vehicles, and choose the most efficient paths for travel without human error. These renovations would result in less total miles traveled by drivers, reducing both accidents and the energy expended on travel.

Gas would not be the only resource saved; travelers and commuters would no longer have to grip the wheel and focus on the road for long portions of time, providing countless more hours to work, nap or answer text messages without causing an accident. Widespread use of autonomous cars would also make transportation more accessible for people physically unable to drive who may not have access to a bus stop. With all these benefits in mind, it is difficult not to lose sight of potential drawbacks and the importance of thinking before acting… or letting someone/something else act.

Several companies, such as General Motors, Waymo, Tesla, Apple and Ford, are working to perfect their autonomous car models and create a design that will revolutionize the car industry. Waymo, which stems from Google, appears to be a current leader in the engineering race. Waymo vehicles have been, according to monthly reports, self-driven five million miles and have only been involved in 24 crashes, only one of which has been determined to be the autonomous vehicle’s fault. However, while these results are promising, other programs have foreshadowed dangerous consequences of turning a blind human eye to the road. For example, an Uber-operated self-driving vehicle hit and killed biker Elaine Herzberg on March 18, 2018, in an accident that was determined to be avoidable if the “driver” of the vehicle had been watching the road and operating the car.

While self-driving car models are programmed to avoid obstacles and thus not hit pedestrians, it is difficult to program for an unanticipated event when pedestrians, especially children and the elderly, can make erratic decisions on the road. Another issue posed by Nexus Media Writer, Marlene Cimons, is the ethical decisions that self-driving cars would have to make during certain car crashes. For example, suppose the car could swerve off the road, avoiding three other cars with three adults in them, but then hit two children on the sidewalk? Ethical decisions such as these are a highly personal matter and should not be left solely to the hands of engineers, creating a hierarchy in the car’s program that the traveller may or may not agree with.

Ultimately, for better or for worse, autonomous cars take power away from those riding the vehicles, leaving them in the hands of code programmed by someone else. While this can eliminate error, it also makes people more vulnerable to influences such as hackers who could control vehicles’ programming and thus cause crashes. This could be used as a form of mass terrorism or as a way to target and seamlessly eliminate a particular individual without conspicuously lifting a human hand against them. While brilliant people design the codes to be unhackable, there is no assurance that there is not someone just a bit smarter who can break through and create chaos.

Self-driving cars provide much potential for safer roads and better conservation of resources, but much research still has to be done on making models as safe as possible and finding ways to shut down the vehicles if hackers or other people with malicious intent gain control of the car. Progress never comes without drawbacks, but it is important to weigh the costs and the benefits to see if an innovation truly creates a new situation or opens up the door to greater horrors. Autonomous cars at this time do not truly provide a safer and more convenient method of travel due to the possibility for error and increased vulnerability of the driver. However, renovated models and additional innovation may be able to settle these issues and allow artificial intelligence to take the wheel, without humans fully relinquishing it.


Kate Lee is a contributor to The Daily Campus opinion section. She can be reached via email at Katherine.h.lee@uconn.edu.

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