October 22, 2015
“I’ve called science fiction ‘reality ahead of schedule.’" -Syd Mead, sci-fi visual-effects artist Last week, the Japanese periodical Nikkei reported on Toyota’s plans to slash 90% of its line of CO2 emitting vehicles by 2050. While 35 years may seem like a long time from now, it represents a light-year jump in progress relative to the glacial pace of the automotive industry. For those who want their technology to evolve more rapidly, there is one seemingly sci-fi mode of transportation that will certainly be coming soon to a road or highway near you…namely, self-driving vehicles. For those who don’t regularly follow automotive trends, this may sound a bit far-fetched. But make no mistake: there will be a plethora of autonomous driving vehicles on streets across the U.S. in the very near future. Already we’ve seen vehicles like the Tesla Model S equipped with autopilot software; moreover, Google is at the forefront of companies currently conducting road tests for their self-driving vehicle prototypes. Granted, this technology still has its quirks, but that’s not the main factor preventing automakers from flooding the market with self-driving vehicles. The biggest impediment to progress at the moment, as Volvo’s CEO recently intimated, centers on who would assume legal liability for malfunctioning vehicles. Presumably those practical issues will be ironed out more or less successfully over the next few years. But there may be an even bigger concern on the horizon, and it’s one that should be familiar to fans of Blade Runner and the Terminator franchise—what happens when you develop technology with the capacity for human thought? Mead’s Maxim Come True At this stage, reality hasn’t caught up to science fiction in terms of delivering an autonomous vehicle with a capacity for self-awareness on par with, say, KITT from Knight Rider. With that said, upstarts like Tesla, Google and Apple have self-driving vehicle projects in various stages of development that are expected to be completed by the end of the decade. It’s noteworthy that the bulk of technical progress with regard to autonomous cars has come from companies who are relative outsiders to the auto industry, a fact that has perhaps made it easier for them to innovate. To be fair, established auto companies like Mercedes-Benz, BMW and others are also getting in on the autonomous car act, but it’s clear that the tech companies are on the cutting edge at the moment. Indeed, we’ve been inching toward a self-driving vehicle future for years. With the prevalence of on-board GPS and WiFi connectivity systems, today’s drivers rely less on their “native” instincts to guide them than ever before. Therefore, it wouldn’t be too much of a conceptual leap to imagine a day when our vehicles do all the work, turning us drivers into passengers whose responsibilities end once we input our destinations. The implications of such technology could be transformative, changing the ways in which we interact with our vehicles. Some experts predict that self-driving vehicles can potentially mitigate or even prevent the most prevalent forms of human error, such as tiredness or drunkenness, that typically lead to auto accidents. The final frontier for self-driving vehicles would be reached once mass acceptance of the technology within the culture reaches the point where driving will no longer be seen as a proprietary skill limited to certain age or regional demographics. Of course, there will be probably always be human-operated vehicles co-mingling with autonomous cars, much in the same way that one can still see horse-driven buggies on the road on occasion. By their very nature, humans have a deep nostalgic streak, which means there will be those diehards who feel that the more outdated version is the superior or “purer” one. However, dyed-in-the-wool gearheads who enjoy the act of driving for its own sake could become an endangered species thanks in large part to self-driving vehicles. Rise of the Self-Driving Machines One of the biggest obstacles facing autonomous car engineers is programming the vehicles so that they can respond to real-world driving conditions as a human might. Google is endeavoring to develop self-driving vehicles that behave like a human driver might in terms of cutting corners, approaching intersections and overall driving fluidity. The company recognized the need for intuitive driving capabilities after road tests revealed that its self-driving vehicles were “a little more cautious than they need to be,” according to Chris Urmson, director of Google’s self-driving vehicles program. An excess of caution can cause a self-driving vehicle to stop suddenly if it senses a potential obstruction. Such stops can result in in collision accidents, of which there have been 16 since 2009. With that said, self-driving vehicles are designed to reduce auto accidents over the long haul. As The Atlantic notes, quoting researchers at McKinsey & Company, self-driving vehicles could have potentially saved upwards of 29,000 American lives in 2013 alone. In the long run, the researchers say that “driverless cars are poised to save 10 million lives per decade—and 50 million lives around the world in half a century.” Before we reach that point, independent experts are cautioning auto companies to consider the larger implications of self-driving vehicles. One of the leading experts in this field is Stanford engineering professor Chris Gerdes. Gerdes is a strong proponent of self-driving vehicle technology, having modified his Audi racecar to autonomously maneuver through a 12.4-mile track. However, his enthusiasm is tempered by reservations regarding the ethical implications of decisions autonomous vehicles will have to make. “People often say the technology is solved, but I don’t quite believe that,” Gerdes said. “There’s a lot of context, a lot of subtle, but important things yet to be solved.” In his meetings with execs from GM and Ford, as well as in his driverless ethics workshops attended by employees from Tesla and Google, Gerdes has impressed upon the auto industry that self-driving vehicles will between a rock and a hard place from a ethical standpoint. For instance, in cases where a vehicle may have to choose between human safety and breaking the law, which option should it choose? What if the choice is between the occupants of the self-driving vehicle or those in another vehicle? As Gerdes puts it, “We need to think about traffic codes reflecting actual behavior to avoid putting the programmer in a situation of deciding what is safe versus what is legal.” Naturally, Gerdes frames his concerns in a manner that science fiction fans are sure to understand. In his lectures on driverless ethics, he evokes Asimov’s Three Law of Robotics, the first of which reads as follows: “A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.” The trick is to program autonomous cars with the capacity to make real-time, split-second decisions that may contradict its strict programming if need be without endangering the lives of others. The implications of this line of thought are, of course, fascinating. Might we be on the precipice of a future where our vehicles are not only autonomous, but also self-aware and able to converse with us? That may sound a bit ambitious, but anything is possible in an automotive world where the gap between reality and sci-fi is shrinking ever steadily.