You've probably read a few articles about driverless cars over the past couple of years. The technology is coming along quickly, with fleets of test cars already on the roads in some states. It seems like soon we'll achieve the American dream of stuffing our faces and texting all we want while still managing to avoid public transportation.
But the reality is quite different. We're diving into this technology a little too quickly and ignoring all the warning signs about how we are going to screw up on the way to Driverless Car Utopia.
6Self-Driving Cars Are More Likely To Get In Accidents -- For Now
By the middle of the 21st Century, once we are all puttering around in our Jetson-mobiles, driverless cars will probably live up to their promise of being safer -- up to 90 percent safer than cars which depend on our stupid human brains to control them, in fact. That is undeniably awesome, and would save more than a quarter of a million lives each decade, as well as hundreds of billions in healthcare costs. It will totally make up for driving around in what appears to be a Pokemon that walked in on its parents having sex.
But until then, according to the studies we have available so far, driverless cars are far less safe than regular cars. One out of every 12 in California got in accidents over the course of just six months. And a longer study of all accidents involving autonomous cars between 2012 and 2015, compared to those involving just regular ones in 2013, found that the former were five times more likely to get into crashes. Even when they controlled for the fact that people don't usually report minor dings or fender benders, the self-driving cars were still two times as dangerous.
And even though there are only a handful of them on the roads, they have already been responsible for one death. In May, a Tesla driver in Florida put his car in self-driving mode and popped a Harry Potter film in his portable DVD player. Then his car decided to make a simple lane change. Unfortunately, it couldn't detect the difference between a clear blue sky and the large white side of an 18-wheel truck, and bam, J.K. Rowling could add another innocent person to her kill list.
If they are going to be perfect one day, why so dangerous now? Well ...
5Self-driving Cars Always Follow the Law -- And That's Bad
Like some kind of ridiculous goody-two-shoes who brags about how well they did on their driving test and the fact that they have never gotten a traffic ticket, autonomous cars are programmed to absolutely always follow the law. Again, one day this means they will be a lot better than people, because they won't be so distracted by rocking out to Whitesnake that they blow through a stop sign.
"I promise this has a perfectly logical explanation, officer ..."
But for now, while they are on the roads with cars that still have drivers in them, it means they can't react to ambiguity. NO ONE follows traffic laws all the time. How many times have you sped up to make a red light, or merged into traffic that was going above the speed limit? You have to be able to balance what is legal with what is safe in the moment. Driverless cars won't be able to make decisions like that, but are surrounded by people who do, which will lead to accidents. In fact, all those crashes in the studies mentioned in the first point involved some form of human error -- usually a regular car hitting an autonomous car -- because the human driver expected the self-driving car to act how a person would in that situation, not a computer.
"It probably says 50 under there."
This is why some lawmakers are getting nervous about this new technology. After Uber launched four driverless cars in Pittsburg in September, a Chicago alderman preemptively proposed an ordinance trying to ban them in that city. He said he doesn't want the streets of Chicago to be used "as an experiment that will no doubt come with its share of risks, especially for pedestrians." He's probably right; potential pedestrians don't need to add "getting run over" right after "getting shot" on their list of reasons not to walk around Chicago.