by Mark Aragona
It’s not yet the level of KITT from the Knight Rider series, but it’s getting close.
Germany’s Free University has created a pilotless car that can drive from one destination to another, without having to rely on human control. There was a driver present in the test drive to take over in case of an emergency, but he wasn’t necessary except to comply with city regulations. The car itself maneuvered through Berlin traffic without any difficulty at all. The testers simply entered instructions into the system before letting the car take over. Using an array of sensors and cameras, the car develops an electronic image of its surroundings, allowing it to navigate its way through the streets.
The benefits of this technology are tremendous: For one, it eliminates the need to have another driver pick you up. The car drives itself, essentially making you a passenger. Sharing a car becomes easier as the car may take its passengers to their separate locations before heading back home. Moreover, people with disabilities will have a chance to drive wherever they please.
Of course, this raises the question—are people ready for such a car? Considering that many drivers have a tendency to drive “their way”, many car owners will be reluctant, even hostile, towards anything that impinges on their autonomy as drivers. They will want to use their own judgment on when to overtake, change lanes, idle or park.
On the other hand, there’s the recent incident with Google’s own self-driving car, wherein an accident was caused not by the computer system but by the human driver himself! Unlike machines, humans can be distracted, fatigued, stressed or under the influence of drugs and alcohol. Not to mention they are not always inclined to follow traffic and safety rules as well as bad habits that involve speeding, tail-gaiting, freeway games, cutting, illegal parking, and so on. Having the machines take over may reduce the costs of traffic and even save lives.
Is there some middle ground in all this? Both the government and the car manufacturers need to hash out the gray areas that comes with this marketable new technology. Furthermore, they have to tackle the inevitable problem that will come up during accidents: will it be the fault of the car owner or the car manufacturer?
As of now, the cost of self-driving cars is still prohibitive, but several car companies forsee that a production model will be available for consumers in 2018. With General Motors, Volvo, Audi, Google and many other companies vying to produce the first mass-produced driverless car, it seems inevitable that driver autonomy will soon be taking a back seat.