Tuesday, Nov 11 2014

Fact vs. Fiction: Driverless Cars

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Fact vs Fiction- Driverless Cars

Driverless cars have been a dream for decades — but these days they’re moving from science fiction to science fact. The first self-driving vehicles have already been developed, and while they’re not on the market yet, researchers are working toward the glorious day when cars drive themselves, and humans can sit back and enjoy the ride.

Because driverless cars aren’t in widespread use, there are plenty of rumors surrounding this technology. Here are some of the top myths about driverless cars, as well as some truths that may shape the self-driving future.

Myth 1: Driverless cars eliminate the risk of human error

In a utopian world, self-driving cars would completely eliminate accidents because machines don’t sleep, text, get drunk, or stop paying attention. However, driverless cars do contain room for human error in their programming and design.

This could be a positive or a negative. On the positive side, the ability to program a self-driving car in a non-stressful environment — rather than while it’s being driven — can lead to significant increases in safety. But there is also risk with programming driverless cars, which must be ready to handle any situation. If the developers haven’t envisioned a particular scenario, the car won’t be equipped to handle it.

Myth 2: Self-driving cars can drive anywhere

It’s nice to envision driverless cars able to take on any road, anywhere, in any condition. But the fact is that at least for now, self-driving cars are extremely limited on where they can go. Because they rely on GPS for direction, these cars can only operate in very good weather conditions and can’t navigate in places like tunnels or parking garages, where there’s no GPS signal.

Myth 3: People are bad at driving

Anyone driving in rush hour traffic would disagree, but the idea that humans are inherently poor drivers is a myth — especially when compared to machine drivers. Experience and intuition go a long way toward making human drivers superior to mechanical ones. People also have the advantage of being able to understand their environment, and factor context and perceptions into their driving reactions.

Myth 4: Driverless cars are hands-off driving

The idea of climbing into a car, programming your destination, and curling up to sleep in the back seat isn’t possible with current driverless technology. The human owners of self-driving cars still have to pay attention during the drive, and keep a hand on the wheel and a foot near the brake. In fact, driverless cars have safety features that require at least one hand on the wheel at all times — because the car could fail at any point.

Fact 1: Self-driving cars can be more energy efficient

Cars require a lot of energy to move — but a majority of that energy is used to move the car itself, rather than the person inside it. Modern cars contain thousands of pounds of steel, which is primarily for crash protection. But if driverless cars moving at lower speeds remove the possibility of deadly collisions, they can be designed with more energy- and fuel-efficient materials.

Fact 2: Driverless technology is steeped in ethical debate

The ethics of allowing self-driving cars are a major hurdle for the automotive industry. Questions that must be answered include how conservative these cars should be in the interests of avoiding accidents, whether cars should be programmed to break laws and speed limits if required to keep passengers safe, and how much control the car’s programming should have over the driving process.

Fact 3: Experts disagree whether cars should be connected

Connectivity may seem like an obvious good feature for driverless cars, and many feel they should be connected. Allowing self-driving cars to communicate with each other may make driving more efficient, and provide enhanced safety. But others feel this level of connectivity is unnecessary — because human drivers use only their eyes, driverless cars should in theory be able to rely on camera vision alone.

Fact 4: No one is empowered to decide these issues

Even if the ethical and connectivity debates could be settled, driverless technology has no centralized governance that is able to enforce decisions. While states and government agencies are working with the issues, and a standards committee with the Society of Automotive Engineers is developing voluntary standards for driverless vehicle design, there are currently no decision-makers to guide the industry into consumer markets.

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