When it comes to self-driving cars, Tesla has w togged the limelight since launching its Autopilot technology in 2014. But lately there’s been a slew of contenders clamoring to get their self-driving cars on the road.
How do self-driving cars work? In a nutshell, they use cameras, GPS, a slew of laser or radar sensors, and an onboard computer to create a computerized view of its surroundings.
There aren’t any production vehicles that are actually fully autonomous yet — currently available “self-driving” cars can only drive themselves in certain conditions and still require a driver behind the steering wheel.
Even Tesla’s own Autopilot technology is limited by software to partial self-driving abilities, although they claim that all new vehicles already have the hardware in place to support fully autonomous functionality in the future once the software and legal regulations allow for it.
But interest in self-driving cars is growing, which will accelerate the technology’s development. Some are even calling 2017 the year of the self-driving car. Now, I have a hunch that other events in 2017 will ultimately overshadow any advancements in autonomous car technology. But let’s put that aside and take a moment to reflect on the top pros and cons of self-driving cars.
Pro 1: Safety
This is the biggest benefit a self-driving car offers. A car doesn’t text or talk on the phone, doesn’t drink alcohol, and doesn’t bat an eye on unruly children shrieking in the back seat.
Distracted driving is a serious issue, and a fully self-driving car eliminates that issue. The issue with that is that the technology just isn’t quite there yet.
Autopilot technology in cars available today still require the driver to stay focused on the road and ready to retake the controls at a moment’s notice.
Not to mention there are lingering ethical questions about how a self-driving car will handle lose-lose situations where it’s in a jam and needs to decide between two equally bad scenarios.
Pro 2: Time
Once cars are fully autonomous, you can catch up on email, a book, or just kick back and watch Hulu while your car shuttles you around town.
Just think of all the things on your smartphone that tempt you, trying to distract you. If you have a fully self-driving car that doesn’t require your attention, be distracted! Enjoy it! Your car’s a better driver than you anyway.
And how nice would it be to arrive at work every day without the stress from fighting traffic on the way in?
Pro 3: Traffic
You know how traffic can grind to a halt even if there aren’t any accidents? That’s because, in my personal opinion, too many people are terrible, overaggressive drivers. Everybody wants to hurry up and get “in front”, and in doing so we create traffic waves.
And oh man, if a lane is closed forcing people to merge? Good luck. We all hate the “cheaters” who stay in the closing lane until the very end, yet everyone even far back before the merge is packed in so tightly bumper-to-bumper that drivers simply have no choice but to cut at some point.
A single driver can reduce congestion on a road simply by leaving extra room in front of their car. But that’s against human nature, so it won’t happen en masse until self-driving cars are more ubiquitous.
At the extreme end of the spectrum, traffic jams would pretty much cease to exist if all cars on a road were autonomous. Cars would be traveling at the same speeding automatically handle intersections and merging without the pitfalls of human emotion.
Self-driving cars could even help the environment because of platooning, where cars follow one another so closely that they reduce air resistance.
Con 1: Cost
I personally love Tesla cars and soooo want one. I could drive across the country without paying for gas. I could be a lead foot without worrying about fuel economy. And yes, I could engage Autopilot and let the car drive itself.
But a new Tesla starts at like, $80 grand. So I’m patiently awaiting the Model 3 which starts at $35,000 before incentives (and also patiently awaiting a time when it feels reasonable to spend $35K on a car…).
Some of the benefits of self-driving cars — namely reduced emissions and road congestion — won’t have a large impact until more people can afford the cars. Hopefully that comes sooner than later.
Con 2: Security
The whole point of a self-driving car is that it be controlled by computers and act on its own. And while a properly functioning autonomous vehicle may be a safer driver than a human, who knows how unsafe it will be if there’s a computer glitch.
We humans do have two pretty strong advantages over computers — we don’t crash and we can’t get hacked.
I’d imagine — or hope, at least — that if such a glitch occurs, the car would release control back to the driver. But depending on what the driver’s doing, it could take them a while to regain their bearings and handle the vehicle.
Especially considering self-driving cars that are connected to networks to receive updates over the air, there seems to be a serious risk for hackers to take control of a self-driving car’s system. This is a definite concern of many.
Con 3: Reliability
Simply put, self-driving car technology is still experimental and unproven. That’s why today’s “self-driving” cars don’t fully drive themselves yet.
Functionality is limited, and while you may be able to take a long drive on an interstate without interacting with the car, today’s self-driving cars can’t really handle complex inner city routes yet.
The closest we are to this level of automatic driving is probably the self-driving Uber vehicles that have been tested in Pittsburgh since September. These autonomous Ubers are getting better at handling city driving, but they’re far from perfect and still require a human driver who can retake the controls when the car gets confused.
Weather presents another challenge. How will a self-driving car handle a road that’s covered in snow? Even if it can navigate without lane dividers, will it understand that the road is slippery and reduce speed accordingly? Some sensors can see through rain, snow, or fog, but there’s still the risk that the sensors themselves can get covered in snow, mud, or ice. Exactly how capable self-driving cars are in such conditions is still unproven.
And speaking of lane dividers (maybe this belongs up under Security), what if some sinister troublemaker paints fake lane lines on a road? Could that cause a self-driving car to veer off a cliff because that’s where it thinks the road goes?
These and many more questions remain about fully autonomous cars. And with any new technology it will take a while for all the kinks to get worked out.
I’m curious — what do you think about self-driving cars as they stand today? Would you buy one?
Share your thoughts in the poll above and the comments below.