Once exclusive to science fiction, driverless cars may be just around the corner. At least, they could be if Google and Uber keep driving efforts to develop a fleet of autonomous vehicles.
For big-name Google, this work isn’t new – the company has had its eye on developing a self-driving car for years. But until recently, they’ve been stuck at pole position, with little to show outside flashy press demos. Uber, on the other hand, has surged ahead to launch a commercial trial of its technology. Since last year, the taxi-alternative has been running pilots of its autonomous system in Pittsburgh and Tempe.
In the run up to Uber’s trial rollout, the two mega-companies formed a coalition. Uber and Google partnered to push for federal action to help speed self-driving cars to market. Besides lobbying for favorable regulations on this new mode of transport, the partnership aimed to convince the public of the benefits of autonomous vehicles.
And that’s no small task, really. People are skeptical. After all, driving is an intricate endeavor. Some experts believe it may be the most complex task humans engage in on a daily basis. Questions abound, from how the cars will handle extreme weather conditions to how they’ll respond to human drivers.
Case in point was last month’s crash involving an Uber self-driving car in Tempe, Arizona. The accident was caused when a human-controlled car smashed into the Uber autonomous car and rolled it on its side. While the crash didn’t result in any serious injuries, it did give both test cities pause about whether to continue the program.
In the end, the accident amounted to a minor setback for Uber’s commercial trial. After an investigation pegged human error as the cause of the crash, the self-driving cars were back on the road.
Current statistics show that human error is responsible for 94% of all road accidents. And despite the auto industry’s best efforts to make cars safer, the number of automobile fatalities continues to climb each year. In fact, car crashes are the leading cause of death among 15- to 29-year-olds in this country. So could autonomous cars provide a solution?
Proponents of the push towards self-driving cars believe that the technology will enhance both public safety and mobility. In addition to being a safer mode of transportation, those in favor suggest benefits will include increased mobility for elderly and disabled individuals, reduced traffic congestion, and improved environmental quality.
Are we there yet? In short, no. Self-driving car engineers say that a world where such cars are the norm is a long way off. And while Uber’s vehicles are practicing good traffic etiquette (the cars aren’t texting while driving or hitting the road after a few beers), becoming self-reliant is a hard climb. Just because companies like Google and Uber can build a suite of self-driving software doesn’t mean the innovation will ever be adopted on a level the general public will benefit from.
It’s good to be skeptical here. While we’re skeptical about whether driverless cars will ever make the mainstream, it’s also good to be skeptical about the motivation behind the movement. Look, we all want safer roadways. But is the impetus behind the commercialization of driverless car really safety? When I look at companies touting a goal of social good while making a profit, I ask myself one question: “What’s in it for them?”
When it comes to Google, they have your full attention. Since you theoretically won’t have to drive, you’re a captive audience for the video screen glued into your self-driving car. For Uber, eliminating drivers means eliminating a class of folks they would have to otherwise pay. So by investing in this technology, they can step away from investing in the workforce.
No matter what side of the street you’re on in this debate, we can all agree that driverless cars have a long way to go. Until then, keep your hands on the wheel, your eyes on the road, and relax and enjoy the ride.