Look Ma, No Hands!

Photo: Gadget Magazine
There is a sort of irony inherent in the idea that driver-less cars, those functioning entirely on technology, could actually improve the safety of our roadways.  After all, the basic idea that a vehicle would operate on its own, at high rates of speed no less, seem backwards.  Yet, those who work on robot cars seem to believe they will be a reality in the future.  Certainly you’ve heard or seen video of vehicles maneuvering over obstacles, traveling from point A to point B relying entirely on cameras, computers, and GPS.  In fact, every time I hear about these projects I start to dream about the possibilities.  Imagine multi-tasking safely on the way home from work.  Last week a team of Italian Engineers launched what is being called the longest ever test drive of a driver-less car.  The trip will take an estimated three months, and cover over 8,000 miles, spanning from Parma, Italy to Shanghai, China.
What we are trying to do is stress our systems and see if they can work in a real environment, with real weather, real traffic and crazy people who cross the road in front of you and a vehicle that cuts you off, said project leader Alberto Broggi. (Via Huffington Post)
The project is being funded by a $2.3 million grant from the European Commission’s European Research Council, in addition to various sponsorships.
As the argument goes, driver-less technology has the potential to enhance goods movement by enabling more efficient transportation.  The technology could be used for industrial purposes as well, in mines, caves, or for hazardous exploration.  Picture a driver-less bobcat.  More importantly, it could provide an increase in safety on our roadways.  Eric Morris, contributor to the New York Times Freakonomics blog says that humans are poorly adapted for driving cars.  He argues that computer technology is improving safety, not hurting it.  He cites the “lane assist” system that helps to prevent cars from drifting into neighboring lanes, as well as other innovations that people are willing to pay for as reason enough that technology is not undermining safety.  Additionally, he points to the notion that half of the 40,000 annual automobile fatalities each year are a result of driver error.  Taking the driver out of the equation could cut down on these deaths.  The real advantage according to Morris is that driver-less cars will help ease congestion,
Humans can judge that the car in front of them is slowing down (its brake lights flash and the car is growing), but we are poor judges of how quickly it is slowing down. Thus, to err on the side of safety, we have to overapply the brake. This creates a chain reaction when the same behavior gets replicated by driver after driver down the line. Traffic thus slows far more than necessary.
Slow reaction times and poor perception also mean that we have to leave an unnecessarily large amount of distance between us and the car in front of us. (via Freakenomics)
He also notes that this type of technology would provide mobility for those who traditionally have had more difficulty accessing it, specifically, the elderly and those under the legal driving age.  While these arguments are compelling, a few people have responded with alternatives to Morris’ posting.  One person suggested that a well planned mass transit system could solve congestion without the need for investment in new technology.  Another person suggested that we tax individuals based on the size of the vehicle they drive.  In theory the larger the vehicle, the harder you would be taxed, thus, encouraging people to choose smaller options or alternative transportation.  Just the other day I saw a car filled to capacity.  I asked myself subconsciously,  why is that car full?  It was surprising to see six passengers in a four door sedan.  Yet, isn’t this very reaction the problem?  We are so accustomed to seeing single passengers in cars that we are startled when we see more.  Perhaps the tax on the size of the vehicle has merit.  It’s just an opinion, what do you think?
Do you see driver-less cars making sense?  Do you agree they improve safety? Do you side with an alternative, mass transit, tax levied, etc.?
Read On:
Driverless Cars Make Maiden Voyage Across Asia
GM Says Driverless Cars Could Be on the Road by 2018
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