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Are driverless cars the future of transportation?

Imagine how your daily commute to work or even to visit relatives states away could be transformed if your car took care of the driving for you. In several years, this could be a reality through driverless cars. Many assisted-driver systems exist in the automobile market today. Cruise control, automatic braking, collision avoidance, and lane keeping are common additions to current automobiles. 

This technology has been commonly accepted for years. The next step is driverless cars. There is a significant difference between assisted-driver systems and and automated driver systems. Drivers are expected to remain alert when operating assisted-driver systems, but with automated-driver or driverless systems, drivers could essentially become passengers, and would even be able to devote their attention to a completely separate task, such as reading a book or catching up on their favorite show on Netflix.

Major Players in the Space:

General Motors and Waymo are currently leaders in the development of driverless cars. Several years ago, GM acquired Cruise, a self-driving startup, with which the Cruise AV (a modified version of Chevrolet Bolt EV) was adapted. The vehicles are currently being tested in San Francisco and in the suburbs of Phoenix. GM recently filed a safety petition with the US Department of Transportation to put the Cruise AV on the market in 2019. Cruise AV do not comply with a number of federal safety standards, but GM argues that exceptions need to be made for driverless cars, which cannot and should not need to conform to “human-driver-based requirements” to be safe. The Cruise AV does not have a steering wheel, pedals, or any other manual controls. GM President Dan Ammann asserts that a car without a steering wheel cannot have a steering wheel airbag, for example. As driverless cars are introduced into the market, safety regulations need to be updated to reflect their differences from driver-operated cars.

Waymo began as a part of Google X, a Google research unit, in 2009. In 2016, Google made its driverless car project a separate entity under Google named Waymo.  In 2015, Waymo conducted a driverless car’s first completely independent trip, when Steve Mahan, a legally blind man, was transported from a park to a doctor’s office. In 2017, Waymo partnered with Intel and Chrysler, adopting their Pacifica Hybrid minivans.

Waymo’s driverless cars afford many safety features, including braking and backup steering. The company has been developing its driverless cars for years. Testing them with test drivers at the wheel, now, Waymo’s Chrysler Pacificas are operating completely independently in Phoenix’s metropolitan area through the Early Rider Program. Residents of Phoenix can apply to be part of the Early Rider Program and use Waymo’s driverless Chrysler Pacificas in their everyday lives, providing feedback on their experiences. Recently, Waymo also partnered with Lyft, the second largest ride-hailing service in the United States, after Uber. The companies did not release many details regarding their plans together, but we can anticipate that the future of ride-hailing might not include drivers.

Uber has also taken steps to begin using driverless cars. The company recently made a deal with Volvo in which they will purchase 24,000 of its XC90 SUVs between 2019 and 2021. The XC90 is the base of Uber’s current self-driving test car. The cars are installed with autonomous driving technology after purchase. Uber has already been using XC90s for testing in Pittsburgh, and Uber also made a deal to include Mercedes-Benz in their operations at some point. However, Uber’s progress was threatened when the company was sued by Waymo, which claimed that Uber stole trade secrets regarding driverless cars. The competition between the two companies, and among smaller companies, is tremendous, considering that these companies may reinvent the ride-hailing industry.

The possibility of driverless cars both excites and scares most people.

How People Feel About Driverless Cars:

The potential reality of seemingly futuristic technology is enthusing, but there are also several causes for concern. A CARAVAN poll found that 64% of respondents are concerned by sharing the road with driverless cars, while a separate study conducted by the Pew National Research Center concluded that 56% of respondents would not ride in a self-driving vehicle. Much of this scepticism can be attributed to doubt regarding the safety of automated-driving technology and if a computer is really capable of making quick decisions on the road the way a person is. However, about 90% of automobile accidents are attributed to human error, which leads us to believe that if you take drivers out of the equation, the road might be a safer place.

Another concern is the direct effects of driverless cars on people. For instance, as automated-driver technology becomes the norm, people will not need to learn how to drive anymore, resulting in the loss of another skill. If driverless cars begin to dominate the transportation industry, whether that be through ride hailing or through public transportation, a whole industry of people will lose their professions.

Cyber Security:

Perhaps the greatest issue with driverless cars is the possibility that they could be hacked and and controlled remotely. Already, modern cars come with internet connection and bluetooth to operate navigation and entertainment systems, which leave them somewhat vulnerable to cyberattack. In 2015, security researchers Chris Valasek and Charlie Miller hacked into a 2014 Jeep Cherokee, remotely stopping the car on highway I-64. They were even able to control the car’s steering, or disable the breaks completely when the car was going at a very low speed. Chrysler recalled 1.4 million vehicles and updated their security following this incident. Although assisted-driver systems are already at risk of being hacked or otherwise manipulated, automated-driver systems share this danger, but with greater implications.

Attacks on assisted-driver systems are dangerous, but do not necessarily have to be disastrous–if the driver is paying attention. For example, a hacked steering system can be overpowered by a driver forcefully turning the steering wheel in his desired direction. However, in an automated-driver system, when there is no one to mitigate such an attack.

Similarly, collision-avoidance technology could be manipulated in several ways. In 2016, researchers at CMU found that glasses with a certain pattern can defeat advanced recognition algorithms, causing a vehicle not to recognize a person in its path. Researchers at the University of South Carolina, Zhejiang University in China, and the Chinese security firm Qihoo 360 all found that sensors on the Tesla S could be confused. Exposing the car to a variety of radio, sound, and light emitting tools, caused the sensors to fail to recognize objects in the vehicle’s path. Although normalizing automated-driving technology is risky, there are many benefits, notably convenience and the safety that comes with eliminating human error.

As we enter the unknown world of self-driving cars, it is important to remain cautious, but also open to new possibilities.

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