(TFC) – Self-driving cars, until recently, have been science fiction — they’ve appeared in movies like Total Recall and Minority Report, but now they’re starting to become reality. Companies like Tesla have been equipping their cars with autopilot technology, relying on sensors and cameras to steer the car rather than the driver’s skill or intuition.
These cars might seem like the best new toy to own, but they don’t come without their downsides. What are the pros and cons of self-driving cars, and should you be rushing to buy one or holding back?
Pro: Fewer Accidents
It’s no surprise to anyone who’s ever driven on a busy highway, but more than 90% of automobile accidents are caused by human error — the remaining 10% are caused by vehicle failure, poor weather conditions or other uncontrollable variables. In 2012, these crashes cost more than $212 billion in health care costs, repair and insurance. The switch to self-driving cars could reduce accidents by 90% and potentially reduce those accident-related costs by $190 billion or more a year.
This accident reduction will, of course, require that a large portion of the driving population purchases vehicles with autonomous driving technology, but once these cars become commonplace, we can potentially expect to see fewer accidents on the roads. This is, of course, assuming that we are able to work out any technical bugs that would cause self-driving cars to become more dangerous than a human driver.
Con: No Human Intuition
How do you react if you see a pedestrian in the road in front of your car? Do you swerve to go around them, or slam on the brakes, or both? What if swerving to avoid the pedestrian means you’re going to crash into a wall or guard rail? Or if avoiding one pedestrian means you’re going to hit another?
This has been one of the main problems programmers have experienced when creating the software for autonomous cars — there is no way to program these cars with the human intuition needed to react to situations like the ones we listed above. They will, quite literally, be programmed to kill, because in some situations there will be no way to avoid it.
Current autopilot programming avoids this dilemma by requiring the driver to remain aware of the situation and be prepared to take over driving at any time — they also require that you place your hands on the steering wheel periodically to maintain autopilot.
Pro: Safer for Motorcyclists
It seems you can’t take a long trip nowadays without seeing at least one motorcyclist on the road. While we usually watch in envy of how fun it looks, we may forget that motorcycle drivers are most at risk when on the road. The small vehicles hide easily in blind spots and they don’t have the protection of a steel cage, seat belts, air bags, or other safety equipment if they get into a car accident. Self-driving cars, in addition to reducing accidents, will be safer for motorcycle drivers to be around.
Simply put, self-driving cars don’t have blind spots. They have sensors and cameras pointing in all directions that allow them to detect cars and motorcyclists around them. It’s not the perfect solution because, as we’ve said, the biggest variable when it comes to auto accidents is human error, but self-driving cars could definitely make the road safer for motorcyclists.
Con: Vulnerable to Hackers
Self-driving cars, even ones like the Tesla that are on the road today, rely on collective cloud technology that improves their ability to drive safely — if one Tesla encounters traffic or poor weather conditions, it can upload that information to the cloud that all of the other Teslas can access and download to improve their driving abilities.
Unfortunately, as with any networked system, that connectivity makes these self-driving cars vulnerable to hackers or other forms of cyber attack. Experts believe that these connected cars could potentially be vulnerable because of their WiFi systems. Even jets could fall into this trap — one hacker recently claimed to have hacked into the electronic systems of a jet he was on, using the onboard WiFi.
Self-driving cars might make the roads safer but they aren’t without their problems. Only time will tell if car manufacturers manage to overcome these problems or if autonomous vehicles will return to the realm of science fiction.