Will self-driving cars be safe in the future?


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Automated vehicles like the Waymo public taxi pictured have become more prevalent in recent years while continuing to be tested for public safety.According to a recent Statista report, one in ten cars nationwide will be automated by 2030, and an estimated $13.7 billion dollars will be contributed to our economy.

John Robbins, Staff Reporter

Imagine: Upon returning to the Raleigh airport following a family vacation, you walk into an outdoor shuttle that takes you directly to your car. To your surprise you realize that this automobile has no steering wheel or driving capability. This hypothetical scenario will likely become more common in the next five to ten years with further development being made by major car companies including Tesla, General Motors and Toyota. It is estimated that ninety percent of the 40,000 fatal crashes per year in the United States are caused by human error in decision making or driving speed. The hope of self-driving cars is that the majority of these accidents will be prevented in the future with AI making all the right choices. Google made headlines in recent years after their decision to run a trial for a self-driving taxi service called Waymo in Phoenix, Arizona. The test was successful, but altogether limited in scope, which means there is much more testing to do to ensure these vehicles can safely navigate highways, congested traffic and inclement weather.
The biggest advantage that should come with automated vehicles (AV) is that they are programmed with the intention of always driving perfectly. AV’s can detect what humans can not during low-light conditions or nighttime and will react more quickly to avoid a collision. Light-detecting and imaging software (LIDAR) is used to create a real-time 3D map of the vehicle’s surroundings with monitoring from internal sensors. As the car is traveling, it cross-references all this data with GPS technology that situates the vehicle within a city and helps to plan its route. Not only are AV’s projected to reduce road fatalities drastically, but they would reduce the number of vehicles traveling on the road altogether. Many large cities including Boston and San Jose are planning to integrate electric self-driving cars into their public transportation systems. This would encourage more people to carpool using AV’s and would allow more room for people to walk or bike to work with the increased sidewalk space.
Although the future of transportation looks to be heading this way, there are many problems associated with automated vehicles. Computers can’t always be counted on to handle unforeseen circumstances that may occur on the road because of pedestrians, bikers, and other drivers. For example, in March of 2018, a self-driving Uber did not recognize 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg walking across the street with her bicycle, outside of the pedestrian crosswalk. An investigation showed that the SUV had three sensory cameras designed to determine what an object is but could not correctly predict her walking path. In addition to this incident, many concerns have been raised on whether driverless cars are susceptible to criminal hacking and the environmental concerns that come with relying on gas-powered cars. Junior Reese Carter weighed in: “I would not want to use a self-driving car because it is personally enjoyable for me to drive myself. I think there would always be a slight fear factor when riding in these vehicles.”
It remains to be seen what the future of AV’s will look like nationwide and in greater Raleigh, but you can bet on seeing more of them on the roads (or the Millbrook parking lot) in the near future.