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Autonomous Cars Are the Future (And That’s Definitely a Good Thing!)

Posted by Roger Ryall on November 24, 2016 @13:05:09 EDT

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Every month brings with it articles about new developments on the road to autonomous cars. Achieving the dream of commercial self-driving vehicles has never been so close. However, like on the eve of past revolutionary technology, some people have concerns.

Concern over the impact new technology will have on society is reasonable. The way businesses and jobs will be affected by self-driving cars, legal issues and liability, and car manufacturing as an industry will all have to adapt to a world with autonomous cars.

There’s one certainty though – a world with autonomous cars will be safer for everyone rather than a world without them.

Autonomous Cars Will Not Be Skynet

A question that frequently appears on Q&As is, “what about when an autonomous car has to choose between two scenarios, both harm to a person or people?” This is a tricky question.

AI capabilities still need some work before they are ready to go. Several companies are already nearing the end goal when it comes to AI road obstacle recognition. However, this isn’t the tricky part.

In a situation where different outcomes all would involve harm to people, how should the onboard AI weigh the decision? The onboard AI will not be like Sky net from the Terminator films. It won’t have free will. Instead, the AI in autonomous cars is similar to Amazon’s Kiva robots. They’ll be able to navigate obstacles, but their decisions are based on the parameters and considerations programmed into them. They won’t be self-aware, or able to change their intended purpose like what appears in dystopian science fiction.

Most people would take a utilitarian approach, and have the AI choose the course of action that would hurt the least amount of people. The problem with this model is that people are only willing to go so far as researchers Jean-François Bonnefon, Azim Shariff, and Iyad Rahwan found in their study.

As this article from TechnologyReview.com puts it, “people are in favor of cars that sacrifice the occupant to save other lives—as long as they don’t have to drive one themselves.”

Ultimately, the answer will depend on what moral considerations the car owners, the law, and the public at large deem as the most important.

Autonomous Cars Need to Be the Future

By having all the cars on the road be self-driving, the single biggest contributor to road accidents is —human error–is removed.

Right now, 90% of all car accidents are caused by human error. In Canada alone, there were close to 111,000 road related injuries, and over 1,800 fatalities reported in 2014. And in the U.S, 20% of all injuries involve distracted drivers.

It isn’t only fewer collisions that makes autonomous cars necessary. They would also reduce traffic congestion, lower fuel costs and overall less time wasted on the road. This is good news for the economy, because as the Conference Board of Canada points out, it will save Canadians $65 billion annually.

There are still moral, legal, and liability considerations to take into account when discussing autonomous cars. What is clear from the figures though is that any system of self-driving cars is better than what we have now.