With automation and artificial intelligence becoming a priority for the world’s tech giants, it’s no surprise that major car companies are beginning to throw their hats into the ring in developing self-driving cars. Volvo and Uber are working together to create driverless cabs, and Alphr has reported on Lexus, Mercedes, Tesla and BMW developing their own self-driving models, the latter with Apple.
Yet, for all the money being thrown at this technology—the UK Government’s flagship scheme has offered a £100m investment for connected autonomous vehicle (CAV) technologies—concerns around vehicle and road safety are still the biggest roadblock to self-driving cars going mainstream.
Earlier this year, The Guardian voiced the opinion that this technology is “entering [its] most dangerous phase”, with often-complacent safety drivers monitoring the vehicles on their autopilot systems. As one transport safety expert notes, “[Car] companies are overselling the capabilities of the systems they have and the public is being misled.”
But shouldn’t self-driving cars armed with safety drivers be a lower risk than their entirely automated counterparts? Should the public be more concerned with driverless cars, or the people making sure they’re running as they should be?
Do driverless vehicles need human oversight?
According to the Guardian’s piece, the CEO of Waymo—Google’s CAV wing—has made the executive decision to “focus on full autonomy” rather than concentrate on a human backup system. This has come as a result of various human errors during autonomous driving companies’ testing processes, including one Tesla employee being issued with a DUI.
Despite a successful autonomous coast-to-coast test run earlier this month, driverless trucks are generally still being tested with a human backup driver; some critics believe it is the commercial sector which will serve as proof of concept, with Business Insider believing that “if there’s a good bet to be made with self-driving vehicles, it’s that they’ll show up first in fleets”. Integrating existing management systems with driverless vehicles does indeed seem like an easy proposition.
Fleet management experts Movolytics note that driver safety for fleets can be provided by telematics software, which oversees the communications between vehicle and dispatchers. This can ensure protection against vehicle theft, as well as overseeing any vehicle safety issues, and goes a step further to ensuring, as Technology Review puts it, that “sensors and code can match the situational awareness of a professional trucker”.
Should we welcome a driverless future?
One American survey noted that 54% of drivers would feel less safe sharing a road with AI, and Brits even less convinced, with only 42% of consumers believing that they will make roads safer. However when it comes to road safety concerns, it would actually appear that driverless cars will provide an almost crash-free future.
Bloomberg recently reported that 90% of accidents on the road come as a result of human errors, with statistics from KPMG showing a potential reduction in crashes of 90% by 2050 in the event of autonomous vehicles going mainstream. Self-driving cars are also only going to get safer, with algorithms being developed to enable these cars to conduct emergency stops and parallel parking manoeuvres, on top of their GPS and AI capabilities.
Of course, one professional sector who are less welcoming of a driverless future are the drivers themselves. With Uber on track to make their drivers redundant via self-driving cabs, and a predicted loss of 300,000 truck-driving jobs per year (as outlined in a Goldman Sachs report), it seems like drivers are set to be another casualty of the increasing push towards an AI-centric future. So while self-driving cars may make our roads safer, the real damage they are set to cause seems to be squarely aimed at the job market.