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Reflections on driverless cars

There is no doubt that driverless cars are a future innovation that is close to becoming a reality. Reading news on the web about the developments of major corporations like GoogleTeslaÜberVolvo, and Mercedes, it is clear that driverless cars, as well as the development of electric vehicles (which are already a reality in the making), will change our lives in the same way that cell phones or the Internet have. It is amazing to imagine that in the near future we will no longer have to pick up our kids from school each day because vehicles will do this for us, or that we will be able to send the car to pick up our friends for dinner while we cook the meal, with the added bonus that no one has to worry about drinking too much wine. We will be able to prepare a presentation as we get to work, take care of the baby while in the vehicle without risking lives, make a video call along the way, read, etc. Driverless cars are said to be safer and have significantly fewer accidents, but they are not foolproof. The safety barrier, and therefore the liability barrier, will probably be the main hurdles that driverless cars must overcome before they can become household products.

Safety and driverless cars

In terms of safety, it is clear that machine sensors can be much more precise and react faster than humans. However, beyond physical capabilities, the sensory abilities and how surroundings are interpreted must also be taken into consideration. Humans have not yet been able to replicate our humanity using silicon or graphene. We do not know how a driverless vehicle will react in light of countless possibilities or how it will interpret its surroundings in a completely new situation in which the computer has not lived a human experience. How will it interpret a low-flying bird in front of the vehicle’s bumper, or a ball bouncing down the street 100 meters away?   In the most delicate aspect, we are also unsure of how it will interact with other drivers that share the same roads. What will happen if human drivers do not yield in heavy traffic? And finally, what will happen if the vehicle is involved in an accident? Will it be able to sacrifice its own liability and integrity to save the life of a human? For example, will it be able to cause a minor accident in order to prevent a serious one? Liability is another important aspect for the private transportation sector. Detailed driving laws currently exist that define who is liable in each specific instance along with the corresponding authorities (courts) that resolve liability conflicts. With today’s justice systems, new laws regarding the liability of these vehicles would be needed, along with clear definitions of who must assume the consequences of the decisions made by “machines.” It would be difficult for consumers or insurance companies or compensation systems (who are ultimately human drivers) to accept this liability. Liability protection structures must be created in order for the sector to develop. Another aspect to be considered is protecting the decisions the vehicle makes. A few days ago, a couple of self-proclaimed hackers were able to practically take full control of a Jeep Cherokee remotely. These hackers were able to cut the vehicle’s transmission and engine, disable the brakes, and operate the electrical elements (windshield wipers, windows, radio, air conditioning, etc.). Fortunately, the driver had been forewarned and was able to react to these attacks, which were carried out by accessing the vehicle’s systems via its 3G connection. There is no doubt that driverless cars must be connected to their surroundings and to the Internet since they must continuously share information. Leaving aside the evil intentions of Skynet or other potential science fiction conflicts, there are groups and organizations in the world today that could use security glitches in vehicle programming to commit crimes. Preventing the inappropriate use of these vehicles by third parties is another barrier that the engineers developing this technology must address.

Driverless vehicles and social transformation

Last, but not least, the social factor of driverless cars or vehicles must be taken into consideration. The industrial robotics revolution at the end of the 20th century caused a social crisis in other industrial sectors that gradually led to the loss of jobs in the sector. The solution for these workers could only consist of job training and occupational retraining. Something similar could happen to professional drivers if driverless vehicles become a widespread reality. In all economic sectors, task automation, robotization, and standardization entail the concept of transforming the basic operating tasks performed by workers into supervisory tasks. Therefore, the development of driverless vehicles must be accompanied by a social transformation that allows drivers to find a framework of personal and professional development based on improved training and job reassignments. The technology is already available or being developed, so the ball is in society’s court. Legislators and citizens will ultimately decide whether driverless vehicles become a reality sooner or later in each region. Society and its rigor will also decide whether the arrival of driverless cars becomes a social revolution that improves each society or whether it is used to emphasize inequalities, as has occurred with many new high-tech products. Driverless vehicles will probably become a reality thanks to new policies for the use of transportation and the consumption of mobility. The future looks promising.